Attorney: Abortion doctor’s killer case ‘hopeless’
Scott Roeder had no intention of apologizing for gunning down one of the only doctors in the nation who offered late-term abortions. He certainly wouldn’t show remorse.
His lawyers knew they had only one option for Roeder, who was relentlessly open about how he planned to kill Dr. George Tiller and how he actually pulled it off.
They had to go for a charge of voluntary manslaughter, which would mean relying on Roeder’s belief that killing Tiller would lead to fewer abortions and unborn children would be saved. But on Friday, jurors swiftly convicted Roeder of murdering the doctor in his Wichita church.
The “whole case from the beginning was based on efforts to get (the voluntary manslaughter) instruction,” defense attorney Mark Rudy said.
In a bid to strengthen its case for that lesser charge, the defense let Roeder take the stand Thursday as its sole witness. He quickly admitted killing Tiller on May 31, describing how he had wanted to do so for a decade. He described going to Tiller’s church three times before, armed and ready to kill. But on those occasions, Tiller wasn’t there, which left Roeder frustrated.
He also testified about how he loathed abortion and considered it murder and that he believed “it is not a man’s job to take life. It is our heavenly father’s. He is our creator.”
The jury listened attentively.
Roeder’s testimony hinged on the possibility that Judge Warren Wilbert would allow the jury to consider the voluntary manslaughter charge, which required the defense to show Roeder had an unreasonable but honest belief that deadly force was justified.
But after Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, Missouri, testified, the judge said he was not convinced there was a case to be made for voluntary manslaughter. The lesser charge was not supported, in part, because there was no threat of imminent danger in the church that Sunday morning, Wilbert said.
“It was our only hope,” Osburn said. “It was pretty crushing when he ultimately decided we couldn’t do it.”
Rudy used words like “helpless” and “hopeless” to describe how he felt after the judge eliminated voluntary manslaughter.
“We knew we were in trouble,” Rudy said. “Obviously we knew that they were not going to let him go.”
The jury announced its verdict — guilty on one count of first-degree murder for Tiller’s death and two counts of aggravated assault for pointing a gun at two ushers, just 37 minutes after beginning deliberations.
Even District Attorney Nola Foulston, who prosecuted the case, said she was surprised at the swiftness of the decision.
Abortion rights supporters hailed the verdict, and some anti-abortion opponents who had been watching the trial decried it as unfair.
“The babies who died at Tiller’s hand deserved their day in court in this trial and they didn’t get it, and that is why Scott Roeder was found guilty of murder,” said Randall Terry, who led massive protests outside Tiller’s clinic in 1991.
Louise Melling, director of the ACLU‘s Reproductive Freedom Project, said she was “honestly gratified” with the outcome of the trial.
“This just shows that your political beliefs or deep passions don’t put you above the law,” Melling said.
Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, said “pro-life was not on trial. An insane man doing an insane thing was on trial.”
He said Roeder “could have saved us about three weeks of taxpayers’ time and the city’s agony if he would have just confessed to it up front.”
Dr. LeRoy Carhart, a doctor and friend of Tiller’s who performs late-term abortions, told Nebraska station KETV that allowing the voluntary manslaughter charge would have put “a target on the back of every other abortion provider.”
Roeder faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years when he is sentenced March 9. Foulston said she would pursue a so-called “Hard 50” sentence, which would require Roeder to serve at least 50 years before he can be considered for parole.
Tiller’s widow, Jeanne, and the rest of the family held hands while the verdict was read, then quickly exited the courtroom. In a statement, Jeanne Tiller said “once again, a Sedgwick County jury has reached a just verdict.”
The family said it wanted Tiller to be “remembered for his legacy of service to women, the help he provided for those who needed it and the love and happiness he provided us as a husband, father and grandfather.”
The decision will automatically be appealed, and the lack of a voluntary manslaughter possibility will “certainly” be part of that, Rudy said.
But Foulston predicts the verdict will stand.
“I believe very strongly that it’s the right decision,” she said.