WICHITA, Kan. – The man charged with killing a Kansas abortion doctor will have his fate decided by jurors picked mostly in secret for a trial that has already inflamed both sides of the nation's abortion debate.
The selection process that ultimately whittled the jury down to eight men and six women took six days and occurred for the most part behind closed doors. Which two jurors are alternates will be decided later.
Only the final hour and a half of jury questioning was open to the media — and then only the four news outlets that had appealed the ruling closing it were allowed in the courtroom. Members of the public were turned away from all of it.
Opening statements are expected Friday, which is also the 37th anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion.
Scott Roeder is accused of fatally shooting Dr. George Tiller on May 31 at a Wichita church. Tiller was one of the few doctors in the U.S. who performed late-term abortions. Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, Mo., is charged with first-degree murder and aggravated assault. Roeder told The Associated Press in November that he killed Tiller to protect unborn children. He has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
The secretive start to one of the nation's highest-profile trials related to abortion did little to quell public distrust that it will be fair.
"This is the kind of thing that invokes the specter of Star Chamber proceedings," said Dr. Warren Hern of Boulder, Colo., referring to an English court in the 1600s that met in secret and became a symbol of the misuse of power by the monarchy.
"Secret proceedings are the antithesis of a democratic society," said Hern, a longtime friend of Tiller who also performs late-term abortions.
The prosecution questioned prospective jurors for an hour and 15 minutes in the open on Thursday, while the defense spent just 18 minutes doing so. Little distinguished the jurors, who mostly answered in chorus to blanket questions about whether they would decide the case on the evidence alone and whether they agreed that Roeder is presumed innocent.
Lawyers on both sides then again retreated behind closed doors with the judge to make their juror strikes.
It is unknown publicly what the jurors' opinions are on the pivotal issue of the case: abortion. Nor does the public know their occupations or much else about them.
District Judge Warren Wilbert has repeatedly said the trial will not turn into a debate over abortion, warning Roeder's lawyers that he intends to keep the case as a "criminal, first-degree murder trial."
The closed jury process took place even as the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Tuesday in a drug trafficking case that the Constitution's guarantee of a public trial means judges may not ordinarily close their courtrooms during jury selection.
The Sixth Amendment gives criminal defendants the right to insist on a public trial, extending even to jury selection, the court said. In earlier rulings, the U.S. Supreme Court had said that the public and the news media could assert their right to attend all the phases of a trial.
Defense attorney Mark Rudy said outside the courthouse that the recent Supreme Court ruling does not affect the possibility that a verdict in the Roeder trial could be overturned, because in this case the defense was in agreement with the prosecution to keep the public and media out.
Roeder also "understood it and agreed with it," he said.