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Defendant's lawyers make Megan's Law a jury-selection issue Judge to begin screening of 4,000 potential jurors


TRENTON, N.J. -- Everyone knows what the prosecutors say happened to Megan Kanka.

In the summer of 1994, they say, the 7-year-old girl was lured into the home of a neighbor with a record of sexual offenses against children, where she was raped and strangled. Her body was left in a pile of weeds in a park near her home in Hamilton Township.

That story is well-known because her death almost immediately spawned a law in her name in New Jersey, as well as a federal law and laws in other states, aimed at notifying communities of sexual offenders in their midst.

Now, with jury selection to begin tomorrow in the capital murder trial of the neighbor, Jesse K. Timmendequas, 34, his lawyers are pressing a novel legal claim that people with any knowledge of the so-called Megan's Law should be barred from the jury.

Any juror who knows why the law was passed, they say, would know the very information that is supposed to be kept from them under U.S. legal rules: that Timmendequas had been convicted of similar crimes before.

Although defense lawyers have already appealed his rulings twice, the trial judge has refused to bar people who know about Megan's Law as he has set rules for screening up to 4,000 potential jurors.

The defense lawyers say that Timmendequas' constitutional rights may be violated by subjecting him to trial by jurors who know the history of the law named for the child he is accused of killing.

With Timmendequas (pronounced tim-MEN-duh-quas) facing the death penalty, the court must be especially rigorous in protecting his rights.

But Kathryn Flicker, the prosecutor in charge of the case, said defense lawyers were "suggesting that defendants charged with the most offensive crimes should actually benefit from the notoriety."

Courts are often presented with claims that unbiased jurors cannot be found for notorious cases.

But even in cases like the Charles Manson murder case in California in the 1970s, the charges of multiple homicide against John Wayne Gacy in Illinois in the 1980s or the murder case against O. J. Simpson in the 1990s, courts have traditionally accepted jurors' statements that they can put aside information they learned from the news media and judge a case solely on the evidence presented in court.

Some legal experts said that the claim by Timmendequas' lawyers was different because prejudicial information such as media reports might be discounted as inaccurate. But, they said, the movement to change laws dealing with sex offenders was based on the often-repeated fact that Timmendequas lived across the street from the Kanka family and had been convicted of sex offenses against children.

Even without an appeal stalling jury selection, the process is expected to be so complex -- as hundreds of jurors fill out a 36-page questionnaire and are interviewed -- that testimony is not scheduled to begin until May 5.

Pub Date: 1/12/97

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