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Abortion foe Scott Roeder tells jury of killing Dr. George Tiller

Roeder testifies in his own defense in the killing of a Kansas abortion doctor. Judge Warren Wilbert decides not to allow the jury to consider a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

January 29, 2010|By Robin Abcarian
  • District Attorney Nola Foulston cross-examines defendant Scott Roeder during the murder trial.
District Attorney Nola Foulston cross-examines defendant Scott Roeder… (Jeff Tuttle / Associated…)

Reporting from Wichita, Kan. — Before shooting him point-blank in the forehead at church last spring, Scott Roeder considered many ways of killing Wichita physician George Tiller.

He thought about ramming his car into Tiller's car, shooting him sniper-style with a high-powered rifle at his clinic, or slicing off Tiller's hands with a sword. He opted against maiming Tiller, he said, because if Tiller survived, he would probably continue to instruct other doctors on how to perform abortions.

The problem was, Tiller was hard to get to.

He lived behind high walls, traveled in a custom armored car, often with a bodyguard, and wore a bulletproof vest. His clinic, the site of a bombing in 1986 and a shooting in 1993 that left Tiller wounded in both arms, was heavily fortified. So, Roeder told the jury hearing testimony in his first-degree murder trial Thursday, killing Tiller at church was his only option.

"If someone did not stop him," Roeder said, "these babies were going to continue to die."

Roeder had a lot of time to plan, since it first occurred to him in 1993 that killing abortion providers was an appropriate way to stop a practice he considered murder, he said.

When jurors begin deliberations today, unless an expected snowstorm closes the courthouse, they will be asked to consider only whether Roeder committed first-degree premeditated murder, which carries a penalty of life in prison.

In a ruling that was closely watched by groups on both sides of the abortion divide, Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert said Thursday after Roeder's attorneys concluded their defense that he would not allow the jury to consider a charge of voluntary manslaughter because Roeder's actions did not meet the state's criteria for that crime.

To prove voluntary manslaughter, a defendant must be able to show that he acted with an honest but unreasonable belief that he used deadly force to stop imminent, unlawful harm.

"I'm relieved," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, who gave a thumbs up in the courtroom when the judge made his ruling. "I think it is chilling how many times he tried to kill Dr. Tiller."

Antiabortion activist Randall Terry, who also attended the trial, said he was outraged that the judge would not allow the jury to consider the lesser charge.

"He's going to prison for life," Terry said. "It's a miscarriage of justice."

In his remarks for the defense Thursday, Chief Public Defender Steve Osburn told the jury that Roeder began participating in the antiabortion movement after becoming a born-again Christian in 1992 while watching "The 700 Club" alone in his living room.

Roeder, said Osburn, came to believe that Tiller would be forced out of business by a series of legal challenges initiated under a fervently antiabortion Kansas attorney general who was elected in 2000.

But Roeder became disillusioned, said Mark Rudy, another public defender representing him, after felony charges against Tiller were dismissed on a technicality 24 hours after they were filed in 2006.

He became even more upset last year after Tiller was acquitted in March on 19 misdemeanor counts alleging he performed late-term abortions on viable fetuses without obtaining independent second opinions, as required by Kansas law. Roeder said he attended that trial on two or three occasions.

"He believed the law had failed him," Osburn said of Roeder. "Scott was going to have to take action. He had to strike when he did. These were honest beliefs and he had no choice."

Tiller's wife, Jeanne, who was preparing to sing in the church choir when her husband was killed, looked pained during Roeder's testimony. She sat with her four adult children and bodyguards in the courtroom, and at times their heavy sighs could be heard.

On the stand, Roeder spoke in a low, steady voice. The 51-year-old airport shuttle driver said he had brought a gun to Reformation Lutheran Church with the intent of killing Tiller two other times before he succeeded on May 31. The first time was in August 2008, when he wore a 9-millimeter pistol in a shoulder harness beneath his sports coat. The second was a week before Tiller was killed. Tiller was not in church either time.

Roeder had even been stopped by a police officer at the church as early as 2002, as he walked toward it after parking his car at a church across the street.

"You said you were moving to Wichita and looking for a new church," said Dist. Atty. Nola Foulston. The officer "asked if you were there for Dr. Tiller and you said, 'I don't know him.' It was your cover story. You were stalking Dr. Tiller in order to kill him."

"Yes," Roeder said.

Roeder also revealed that, after the shooting, he drove toward his hometown of Topeka, stopping for gas and pizza.

"You had lunch for yourself after you killed Dr. Tiller?" Foulston asked.

"I was hungry," Roeder replied.

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