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Judge angered by media role in BTK killings

Thursday, March 10, 2005

WICHITA, Kan. -- Likening media coverage of the BTK serial killings to a "bunch of mad dogs after a piece of meat," the judge in the case said Wednesday he spoke to lawyers about his displeasure with the news coverage but stopped short of issuing a gag order.

However, Judge Gregory Waller's anger over news reports since the arrest of Dennis Rader has spawned two memos from Wichita and Park City officials warning employees they could be jailed and fined if they discuss the case.

Sedgwick County also sent out a less threatening memo asking its employees not to talk. And the district attorney's office sent an e-mail to media outlets listing family members of BTK victims that did not want to be contacted by reporters.

"I'd like to have this case tried in a court of law and not in the newspaper or television or on the radio," Waller said.

Since Rader was charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder in connection with the BTK slayings, local and national media have reported about an alleged confession, DNA evidence and a floppy computer disk that led police to Rader's church in Park City.

"I think the news media has given up all professionalism," Waller said.

Both the Wichita and Park City memos, sent last week, told employees that judges, having a responsibility to provide a fair trial for defendants, have the authority to direct the filing of criminal charges against government officials and employees who disclose information regarding the investigation and prosecution of the case.

The memo to Wichita employees was from City Attorney Gary Rebenstorf, who did not return messages left for comment. The one sent Park City employees was from Park City Mayor Emil Bergquist.

Rader lived in the Wichita suburb of Park City, where he worked as the city's compliance officer until his arrest.

Bergquist said he took the same wording of the memo Wichita sent its employees and modified it to his purposes rather than "reinvent the wheel" in drafting a different one.

"It was not a threat at all because we have no power in that regard," Bergquist said. "It was simply passing a request from the judge down through the DA's office to us."

Media lawyer Mike Merriam, who frequently represents Kansas newspapers and broadcasters, said it would be "kind of a stretch" to charge employees with a crime for talking to the press.

"I can't recall any case in the last 28 years I've been doing this in which employees were threatened with criminal prosecution. That is why I am at a loss what the crime will be," Merriam said. "I can understand why they wouldn't want them to talk about it, but I am not sure how it becomes a crime if they do."

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