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Archive for Friday, April 12, 2002

s order to seal bombing verdict

April 12, 2002

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— Two newspapers and the Kansas Press Assn. filed a motion Thursday asking a judge not to temporarily seal a verdict in a fatal bombing trial.

The motion was filed in Lyon County District Court by the press association, The Emporia Gazette and The Topeka Capital-Journal.

Separate trials are scheduled for Wallace L. Dixon III, 31, and Ethan M. Griffin, 26, for an explosion last July 29 at an apartment complex. The blast killed Dana Hudson, 19, an Emporia State University student from Topeka, and her 13-month-old son, Gabriel. Seven other people were injured.

Jury selection begins Monday for both men, but Griffin's trial will not start until two days after Dixon's ends.

Each is charged with two counts of felony murder, six counts of aggravated battery, two counts of burglary and one count each of aggravated arson, theft and criminal damage to property. Dixon also faces a charge of aggravated assault.

Lyon County District Judge Merlin Wheeler on Wednesday affirmed his ruling in February, ordering Dixon's verdict sealed until Griffin's jury also reaches its verdict.

"The theory is that, by not publishing the verdict on the first case, you avoid having the second jury influenced by the prior decision," Wheeler said Thursday.

The newspapers disagreed.

"We feel it's our obligation to keep court actions open," said Will Kennedy, the Capital-Journal's executive editor. "I don't see any reason for this verdict to be sealed."

John Lechliter, Gazette executive editor, said his newspaper wasn't trying to compromise Griffin's right to a fair trial.

"The Gazette strongly believes that trials, and especially trial verdicts, are matters of public interest," Lechliter said.

Mike Merriam, press association attorney, said Wheeler has promised the media outlets a hearing but has not set the date.

Even if the judge's order stands, that might not be enough to keep the verdict secret, said Jeff Burkhead, executive director of the Kansas Press Assn.

"Given the magnitude of this case, the information will get out one way or another," Burkhead said.

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