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Killer of Kansas abortion doctor eager to testify, friend says

Scott Roeder, accused of premeditated murder, is expected to tell a jury today why he shot Dr. George Tiller, one of the few providers of late-term abortions in the U.S.

January 28, 2010|By Robin Abcarian
  • Jurors saw a sheriff's video of antiabortion activist Scott Roeder's arrest after he fled Wichita, Kan. Other videos showed him shopping for and buying a gun.
Jurors saw a sheriff's video of antiabortion activist Scott Roeder's…

Reporting from Wichita, Kan. — Scott Roeder, the abortion foe accused of the premeditated murder of Dr. George Tiller, is expected to explain to a jury today why he killed the late-term abortion specialist, who had survived years of protests, physical attacks and criminal prosecution before being shot in the head in church last May.

"He's enthusiastic, he's eloquent, he's ready to make his case," said Roeder's friend David Leach, who met with Roeder on Tuesday at the county jail. A month ago, Leach said, Roeder told him he'd been practicing with his attorneys, who are public defenders.

"He's primed, ready, articulate and passionate," Leach said.

In court Wednesday, Sedgwick County Dist. Atty. Nola Foulston concluded the government's case with forensic testimony linking blood on Roeder's shoe to Tiller. The county's chief medical examiner, Jaime Oeberst, testified about the bullet wound that was fatal to Tiller, 67, whose family covered their eyes or looked at the ground when graphic slides of his injuries, brain and skull were shown.

After the jury went home, a tense discussion about the kind of evidence and witnesses the defense can present escalated into an occasionally vociferous war of words between Foulston, Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert and the two defense attorneys.

Roeder has pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder, a charge that carries a life sentence. Wilbert will not allow Roeder to argue that his act was justifiable homicide, as Roeder had hoped. The judge said he might allow the jury to consider a verdict of voluntary manslaughter, but that it would be "an uphill battle" for the defense.

To prove voluntary manslaughter under Kansas law, a defendant must have an "unreasonable but honest belief" that deadly force is necessary to prevent another's "imminent use of unlawful force."

Wilbert said he was being cautious to avoid giving Roeder grounds to appeal a conviction.

"Scott Roeder can testify to his personal beliefs, and the court's prepared to give him some pretty wide latitude," Wilbert said. "I'm sure he's not going to paint Dr. Tiller in a very complimentary fashion."

But the judge refused to allow the defense to subpoena records from Tiller's clinic for Monday, June 1, the day after he was shot. Nor would he allow the defense to call Kansas Deputy Atty. Gen. Barry Disney, who unsuccessfully prosecuted Tiller last March for misdemeanor violations of Kansas abortion law. Public defender Mark Rudy said he wanted to show the jury that Disney had prosecuted Tiller in good faith and that Roeder was disturbed by Tiller's acquittal.

Foulston contended that testimony about Tiller's trial from anyone other than Roeder was irrelevant and, she added, "outrageous."

"This is the kind of psychotic, circuitous logic we are ending up with," Foulston said. "We are opening up a can of worms here that you're not going to be able to put back in."

Wilbert said Roeder was entitled to present a defense that included his version of why he killed Tiller -- one of the few physicians in the country who performed late-term abortions -- and comments on Tiller's March acquittal.

But the judge cautioned: "We're not going to discuss partial-birth abortions, we're not going to discuss late-term abortions and actual medical procedures. But his personally held beliefs in general about abortion, whether it's harmful, whether it terminates a viable baby, he's going to get to testify to that."

Roeder also can testify about "whether he lost faith in the judicial system" or "felt the need to use deadly force against Dr. Tiller," Wilbert said.

"The judge is going down a dangerous road," said Katherine Spillar of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who has been in court observing the trial. "There should not be a debate on whether deadly force is ever justified in a situation where you are differing politically on abortion."

Spillar is one of several high-profile defenders of legal abortion who are in court as spectators. A Justice Department attorney is here too; the department is investigating whether Roeder broke any federal laws when he killed Tiller.

The trial also has drawn a who's who of antiabortion extremists, including Randall Terry, a founder of Operation Rescue. Many of the abortion foes are connected with the Army of God, a group that urges violence against doctors and clinics. Michael Bray, who was convicted of bombing the Washington offices of the National Abortion Federation and the ACLU in 1984, is here.

So is Donna Holman of Iowa, whose husband, Dan, cannot leave Michigan: He was arrested there last summer after an altercation with another driver who objected to Holman's truck. Holman's wife parks the truck -- which is covered with photos of aborted fetuses -- in front of the courthouse each day.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com

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