Judge hears objections to closing church shooting hearing

AP News
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Posted: Aug 31, 2016 1:39 PM

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) — U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel heard Wednesday from news organizations objecting to his closing a hearing about evidence that the defense of Dylann Roof wants to keep out of his federal trial in the Charleston church shootings.

The judge said 3,000 potential jurors are being summoned for jury selection, and he doesn't want them exposed to information that might be excluded from his death penalty trial.

"There are some circumstances where you can't un-ring the bell," the judge said, adding he would release his decision on closing the hearing later Wednesday. He said the hearing would not be secret, and that a transcript would eventually be released.

Roof, 22, goes on trial for hate crimes and other federal charges in November. He also faces nine murder charges, also carrying the death penalty, in a state trial next year.

His defense wants to keep some evidence out of his federal trial over the June 2015 shooting deaths of nine black parishioners at Emanuel AME Church. Gergel has proposed closing a Thursday hearing on that evidence.

Attorney Jay Bender, representing The Post and Courier, argued that any lack of impartiality among potential jurors can be avoided by asking questions during jury screening, which is expected to take three weeks.

Gergel said extensive screening is already planned, and that potential jurors will be called to the courthouse beginning next month to fill out questionnaires about what that they know about the case.

Attorney Carl Muller, representing WCBD-TV, said knowledge of the case is already widespread, noting that a Google search for Dylann Roof returned more than 10 million hits in .35 seconds.

But the judge said "the evidence the defense seeks to suppress has not been publicly disclosed."

"I start with the presumption that this is an open proceeding," the judge said, but as he weighs constitutional guarantees of a free press against Roof's right to a fair trial, he may have to close it, in what he called "a rare exceptional circumstance."