A Kansas judge declared a mistrial in a rape case Thursday and faulted a local newspaper for reporting that the defendant had just been sentenced separately for fondling a child.
Saline County District Judge Jerome Hellmer found that The Salina Journal‘s story, "Man sentenced to 11 years in sex case," which ran inside its A-section, had "tainted" the rape case and robbed Jerry Sellers of his right to a fair trial, the newspaper reported. Sellers is charged with rape and sodomy of a 16-year-old girl, who spent three hours on the witness stand before the trial was halted.
“We fulfilled our responsibility to our readers,” Journal Publisher Tom Bell told the paper, in defense of the decision to publish the sentencing story. “We would make the same call again. But the bottom line for me, right now, is I feel terrible for the victim and the victim’s family.”
According to the The Journal, Sellers’s attorney asked for a mistrial believing his fair-trial rights had been violated by the story, and the state did not object: “I could have assumed no one read the article, but I can guarantee you this would have been overturned, should we have obtained convictions,” county prosecutor Christina Trocheck told the newspaper.
Trocheck said she was "greatly disappointed" The Journal didn’t refrain from publishing the news of Sellers’s other sentencing until after the rape trial was over. Topeka-based media lawyer Mike Merriam told The Journal it’s fairly routine for outside news about a defendant to be reported during a trial, and Judge Hellmer instead could have asked the jurors whether they’d seen the report and if they could still be impartial.