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Church ushers recall slaying of Dr. George Tiller

The prosecution in the murder trial of Scott Roeder also asks the witnesses about abortion protesters who targeted their Kansas church.

January 26, 2010|By Robin Abcarian
  • Jeanne Tiller, left, listens to testimony in Wichita, Kan., in the murder trial of Scott Roeder, who is accused of gunning down her husband, Dr. George Tiller, last year.
Jeanne Tiller, left, listens to testimony in Wichita, Kan., in the murder… (Mike Hutmacher / Pool Photo )

Reporting from Wichita, Kan. — Abortion is the issue that hovers undeniably over the trial of Scott Roeder -- who has admitted to killing physician George Tiller -- even though the prosecution has tried mightily to make this a case about premeditated murder, pure and simple.

So it came as a surprise Monday when Sedgwick County Dist. Atty. Nola Foulston asked a witness about protesters who over the years have targeted the church where Tiller was shot in May.

At the time, the 67-year-old Tiller was one of the few American doctors in the United States to perform late-term abortions.

Keith Martin, an usher who chased Roeder to his car after Tiller was gunned down during services, described a congregation that treads a delicate line between being welcoming yet cautious around newcomers.

Normally, Martin said, protesters outside Wichita's Reformation Lutheran Church stay on the sidewalk, holding signs with photos of aborted fetuses and trying to disrupt the services with trumpets. But at least five times they have come into the sanctuary.

"People would come in and pretend to be visitors," Martin said. "After a few minutes, they would stand up and start hollering. They would go up front and try to take over the microphone, or push the organist off her stool."

Foulston also asked Martin, a Sunday school teacher, what he understood to be his church's position on abortion.

"It's identified as a tragedy," Martin said, adding: "Someone who needs to go to that point . . . it's between God and themselves. Our guidelines pretty much correspond to Kansas law."

Martin and two other ushers testified that they had seen Roeder at church several times in the months before Tiller's death.

At first, Martin said, Roeder's unfriendly behavior had raised suspicions. But then during one children's service, Roeder chuckled at some of the funny things the kids said. That gave Martin the feeling Roeder was not there to cause trouble.

"I guess I'd misjudged him," Martin said. "I thought that was an unwelcoming, unchristian thing to do."

"And you let your guard down?" Foulston asked.

"I guess you could say that," Martin said.

Roeder, 51, has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. In court filings, he said that he shot Tiller in order to save unborn babies.

Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert recently ruled that Roeder could not use a necessity defense, but he left open the possibility that the defense could argue Roeder had an honest if unreasonable belief that deadly force was necessary.

The prosecution has fought vigorously to keep out evidence suggesting that Roeder might be guilty of the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter. A murder conviction would mean life in prison, as opposed to five years for the manslaughter charge.

Roeder also has been charged with two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly pointing a gun at and threatening to kill Martin and another usher, Gary Hoepner.

On the day Tiller was slain, Hoepner was standing near the physician in the church's foyer as 10 a.m. services were beginning. Roeder came out of the sanctuary, and Hoepner said he thought the suspect was heading for the restroom.

"I looked up," Hoepner said. "This man put a gun to George's head. . . . Shot him point blank."

Hoepner chased Roeder through a double door toward the church's parking lot. When they were 20 or 30 feet apart, Hoepner testified, Roeder looked over his shoulder and said: "I have a gun. I will shoot you."

Martin testified that he did not see the shooting, but heard it and gave chase when he saw Roeder running to the parking lot. The usher said that as he stood in front of Roeder's car, the suspect pointed a gun at his face and said, "Move or I'll shoot you."

Martin said he threw a cup of coffee through Roeder's car window as he drove off.

Officials of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which has worked to keep abortion providers safe, monitored the trial Monday. Sitting behind them in the courtroom was the antiabortion extremist Michael Bray, who has served time in prison in connection with the bombing of abortion clinics in the 1980s.

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