Reporting from Wichita, Kan. — In a trial that never became the referendum on abortion that some abortion foes wanted, Scott Roeder, a 51-year-old airport shuttle driver, was convicted today of murdering George Tiller, one the nation's few physicians who performed late-term abortions.
The jury of seven men and five women deliberated for only 37 minutes. Roeder faces life in prison after being convicted of first-degree murder.
Roeder also was convicted on two counts of aggravated assault for threatening to shoot church ushers Keith Martin and Gary Hoepner as he fled Reformation Lutheran Church after murdering Tiller.
Whether Roeder shot Tiller at point-blank range in the forehead at Tiller's church in Wichita last May was never at issue; Roeder had admitted it to reporters, in court filings and finally to a jury on Thursday. He also said he had been stalking Tiller since at least 1999.
"I have never seen a state's case and a defense case that so neatly dovetail," said prosecutor Anne Swegle, noting that Roeder admitted systematically stalking Tiller before calmly approaching him in church, pressing a gun to his forehead and firing a .22-caliber slug into his brain. "He was totally remorseless in delivering to you his version of events," Swegle told the jury.
Roeder, the only witness called by the defense, said he felt relief after shooting Tiller on May 31. After the murder, he drove toward Kansas City, stopping for a pizza along the way.
Roeder had wanted to claim the crime was justifiable homicide, based on his belief that abortion -- in every case -- is murder. But Sedgwick County Judge Warren Wilbert said he could not claim he acted out of necessity. Abortion rights groups became alarmed when Roeder's attorneys asked the judge to allow the jury to consider convicting Roeder of voluntary manslaughter. At the end of testimony Thursday, Wilbert ruled that the jury could only consider premeditated, first-degree murder.
Roeder is also the subject of a Justice Department investigation, and he could face federal charges in connection with the murder.
The conviction brings a kind of closure to the city of Wichita, which became a center of the anti-abortion movement in the late 1980s and 1990s.
After a religious conversion in 1992, Roeder became active in a network of abortion foes, some of whom have been convicted of violent acts against abortion providers.
Tiller, 67, who was beloved by his patients, was a victim numerous times.
In 1986, his clinic, Women's Health Care Services, was firebombed.
In 1991, the clinic became a focus of protest in the so-called "Summer of Mercy." Thousands of anti-abortion demonstrators were arrested as they tried to blockade his clinic.
In 1993, anti-abortion activist Rachelle Shannon shot Tiller in both arms as he left the clinic. He was back at work the next day.
Roeder testified Thursday that he befriended Shannon, who is in prison in Kansas.
"I admired her," Roeder said.
In 2002, the head of Operation Rescue, a group dedicated to ending abortion using confrontational tactics, moved to Wichita. Its president, Troy Newman, said his goal was to put Tiller out of business.
Many of Tiller's patients were women who discovered late in pregnancy that their fetuses were severely compromised by genetic anomalies. But he also terminated the pregnancies of women who might suffer psychological harm if their pregnancies went to term. Under Kansas law, such abortions were legal as long as two doctors, independent of one another, signed off on the procedures.
After Tiller was murdered, his wife announced his clinic would close for good.
Advocates on both sides of the abortion divide found themselves squeezed together on the hard courtroom benches during the trial, which began last Friday with the prosecution's opening statements. Officials from the National Abortion Federation and the Feminist Majority Foundation sat with anti-abortion extremists, some of whom have spent substantial time in prison for violence against abortion clinics.