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Abortion provider's trial opens in Kansas

Dr. George Tiller faces 19 misdemeanor counts of violating the Kansas law governing late-term procedures.

March 24, 2009|Robin Abcarian

WICHITA, KAN. — Opening arguments got underway Monday in the criminal case against Dr. George Tiller, one of the only physicians in the country who provides late-term abortions. And by day's end, it was clear that the case could hinge on such nonmedical issues as who paid for copy paper and toner, the meaning of a hug and whether selling a beat-up sedan to a colleague can constitute proof of guilt.

Tiller, 67, faces 19 misdemeanor counts of breaking the Kansas law that governs how late-term abortions should be handled.

In cases where the fetus is deemed viable -- or able to survive outside the womb, around six months' gestation -- the state requires the approval of a second doctor who is not affiliated legally or financially with the first doctor before an abortion can be performed. The doctor must certify that the mother will suffer permanent and irreversible harm, which can include psychological harm, if she carries the baby to term. The state also requires that the second doctor be from Kansas, which considerably narrows the field since few doctors in the state perform abortions.

Prosecutors contend that Tiller's relationship with Dr. Ann Kristin Neuhaus of Lawrence, Kan. -- who signed off on 19 of his cases in 2003 -- violated the state's independent physician requirement. Neuhaus, who did not have her own clinic at the time and whose only source of income was Tiller, used his office but denied using his staff.

The defense has countered that Neuhaus saw patients at Tiller's office for security reasons -- protesters regularly harassed patients outside the clinic -- and because it was convenient for patients, many of whom were emotionally fragile teenagers.

One of the 19 patients in question was 10 years old. Many of Tiller's patients are women who discover late in their pregnancies that they are carrying severely impaired fetuses.

On Monday, antiabortion activists lined up before the courtroom opened in hopes of getting seats inside.

About 25 did, including Troy Newman of Operation Rescue and a handful of young adults he described as "survivors of the abortion holocaust" because they were born after 1973, the year the Supreme Court legalized abortion. Two people in apparel with antiabortion slogans were asked by sheriff's deputies in the courtroom to turn their sweat shirts inside out or cover up.

In his opening statement, Kansas Assistant Atty. Gen. Barry Disney told the jury that Tiller had recruited Neuhaus, hired his attorney to train her about legal requirements and scheduled his patients for her to see at his office. "They were so entwined that she, in essence, was an employee," Disney said. He implied that one way to tell their relationship crossed the line was the hug she gave Tiller when she saw him at the courthouse Monday.

Neuhaus -- who testified under a grant of immunity -- said she saw five or six of Tiller's patients a week, earning about $300 for each consultation.

During cross-examination, defense attorney Dan Monnat asked Neuhaus: "When you saw [Tiller] this morning and gave him a hug, did you mean to convey that you were legally or financially affiliated with him?"

"No," she replied.

Disney also implied that Tiller had given Neuhaus a special deal when he sold her a 1994 Toyota Camry in 2006 for $300. But Monnat produced an appraisal from a local dealership setting the value of the car at $300 and showed the jury a photo of what he mockingly called "this sleek car" -- which Neuhaus testified needed $3,000 worth of body work.

Neuhaus, the day's only witness, seemed at times flustered.

On some points, such as whether she had received legal advice from Tiller's lawyers, Neuhaus on Monday contradicted her earlier deposition. Tiller's attorneys had sent her a packet of information about the Kansas abortion law, she said Monday, but she did not recall meeting with them. In her deposition, she had said that she received the packet "after consulting with his attorneys."

Her deposition, she testified, may have been flawed because "it was a pretty hostile engagement." She later added, "I was being interrogated for four hours and was a little distraught."

Still, she testified, she maintained her independence from Tiller, going so far as to pay for the copy paper and toner that she used while seeing patients at his Wichita clinic, Women's Health Care Services.

When the prosecutor pressed her about whether she had paid rent to Tiller or paid for any of his staff, she said she had not, adding: "I didn't pay for the toilet paper or coffee" either.

Outside the Sedgwick County courthouse, a couple dozen antiabortion activists prayed. A truck with large panels showing aborted fetuses and slogans such as "Tiller the Killer" drove slowly around the block to mark the first time that Tiller, who has practiced in Kansas for more than three decades, has been charged with a crime.

If convicted, Tiller would face one year in prison and a fine of $2,500 for each count. The trial is expected to last at least through the week.

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robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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