Follow-up on jury selection freeze-out
Despite multiple efforts to obtain access or records, the Republic-Times still has no official account of the typically public process of jury selection in last week’s trial of Kyle Roider for first degree murder at the Monroe County Courthouse.
Nine women and three men were ultimately selected as jurors for the trial, with two additional women chosen as alternates.
On Friday, that jury found Roider not guilty of first degree murder and aggravated battery with a firearm in the January 2019 shooting death of Steven Becker.
As reported last week, when the Republic-Times – the only paper covering the trial – showed up shortly before the first round of jury selection last Monday morning, the paper was told by Monroe County Circuit Clerk Lisa Fallon that “the court” said press would not be allowed to watch jury selection due to COVID-19 concerns. Judge Julia Gomric presided over this case.
The courtroom was too small to adequately social distance everybody, Fallon said, and only those “essential” to the proceedings would be allowed in.
It is the paper’s belief the press has a First Amendment right of access to court proceedings and records, as precedent has shown. This right is not absolute; it is a mere presumption of access.
Prior court decisions on this matter – including a 1984 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court of California – state that “closed proceedings, although not absolutely precluded, must be rare, and only for cause shown that outweighs the value of openness.”
However, per a Supreme Court ruling in Richmond Newspapers, Inc. v. Virginia, “before closing a proceeding, a trial court must exhaust all reasonable alternatives to the closure and make specific findings detailing the need for it.”
The Republic-Times is not aware of any reasonable alternatives sought by the court prior to closing jury selection for the Roider case to the media and public.
Republic-Times editor Corey Saathoff wrote a letter last Wednesday requesting the court “ensures the Republic-Times will have timely access to the transcripts of this jury selection process so the public may still appreciate a similar right of access to court proceedings that it would otherwise have had in less strenuous times.”
This letter was delivered to Judge Gomric in court on the first day of trial proceedings last Wednesday, with a copy also faxed to 20th Judicial District Court Administrator Mary Berneking.
As of press time, there has been no response to this request.
In addition, the process of obtaining general case updates and court information from the Monroe County circuit clerk’s office has been made tougher for the Republic-Times since this jury selection matter occurred.
Typically, the Republic-Times would receive emails multiple times each week of both new and completed criminal cases from the circuit clerk’s office since those files have gone electronic. This office would also send information on lawsuits per request.
But when the paper requested similar such information last week, circuit clerk staffers simply replied that “there is a public access computer in the law library on which you can access and print documents.”
The Republic-Times emailed Fallon asking about this sudden policy change, but to date has not received a reply.
Prospective juror speaks
The Republic-Times was able to get in touch with a local woman who was a prospective juror for the Roider trial.
The woman, who asked not to be named, said she was in the first pool of 48 prospective jurors. The selection process lasted two days.
Judge Gomric introduced prospective jurors to the defendant, defense and prosecution, she said, as all were present. These prospective jurors were given a long list of names, included the defendant’s family, EMTs and police officers. They were then asked to state in front of the group who – if anybody – on the list they knew.
This woman said that in private interviews, prospective jurors were asked follow-up questions based on those they had already answered. They were also asked if they had read anything on the case and what or how they knew about it, she said.
This prospective juror added she remembers on the first day being asked about if she had ever been involved in a trial and if she had a history of being a crime victim or doing a crime.
This woman said prospective jurors were asked if they served on any non-profit boards or if they had held any animosity toward police or emergency responder. They were also asked if they thought they could put that aside if they did, she said.
Prospective jurors were also specifically asked about schizophrenia and other mental health issues, she said.
Lastly, the prospective juror pointed out that the judge was “very gracious” that they participated in the jury selection process.
UPDATE: On Aug. 27, 2021, a Monroe County jury found Kyle Roider not guilty of first-degree murder and not guilty of aggravated battery with a firearm. These charges were brought against Roider in connection with Steven Becker’s January 2019 death.