January 30, 2010
By MONICA DAVEY
WICHITA, Kan. — In the end, it took jurors 37 minutes on Friday to convict Scott Roeder, an abortion opponent, of first-degree murder in the death of George R. Tiller, one of the few doctors in the country to perform late-term abortions.
Mr. Roeder, who admitted in court to shooting Dr. Tiller in May and who said he felt it was the only way that he could halt the deaths of babies, stared straight ahead and showed no reaction at the verdict, which carries a sentence of life in prison.
For Wichita, it appeared to be a final chapter in the struggle over abortion that has focused on this city for three decades. Dr. Tiller, 67, who grew up here and had provided abortions here since the 1970s, had been attacked before (he was shot in both arms in 1993) but refused to stop his work and drew patients from all over the country. After his murder, his family closed the abortion clinic, leaving Wichita, so long a magnet for the debate, with no such facility.
But elsewhere around the country, the debate over abortion continued.
Nationally, abortion-rights supporters lauded Mr. Roeder’s conviction, saying it sent a powerful, unambiguous message to those who commit violence against abortion providers. But the trial, they said, also pointed up an urgent need for more law enforcement and further investigation into those who conspire to such violence. The federal Department of Justice has said it is investigating whether others were also involved in the killing of Dr. Tiller.
“They need to take this investigation to the next stage,” said Katherine Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, who attended the trial. “We don’t have rigorous-enough enforcement.”
The case divided abortion opponents. Leaders of the best-known national groups had denounced Mr. Roeder’s acts. But some others who say they believe the killing of an abortion provider can be justified had portrayed the trial as unfair, and said they were disappointed by the outcome. They also asserted that the result might breed more violence.
“People had said if he were acquitted it would be open season on doctors,” said Michael Bray, who served time in prison for a conspiracy involving abortion clinic bombings in the 1980s and who also attended Mr. Roeder’s trial. “But if you want to see what’s going to stimulate people to do something, you’re inviting more of the same by not giving him a fair trial.”
Serving as the only witness in his own defense, Mr. Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, Mo., took a highly unusual step on Thursday: he admitted to jurors that he had planned for many years to kill Dr. Tiller, that he had gone to the doctor’s church carrying a gun several times until he ultimately succeeded.
On May 31, Mr. Roeder admitted, he walked into the church and shot Dr. Tiller point-blank in the forehead. Mr. Roeder testified that he believed that all abortions amounted to murder and that Dr. Tiller was breaking abortion laws.
Mr. Roeder’s defense team had hoped the judge in the case, Warren Wilbert, would instruct jurors that they could take into account Mr. Roeder’s motive and consider a lesser conviction of voluntary manslaughter if they believed he held, as Kansas law states, “an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.”
But the judge ruled that the circumstances did not meet the requirements for such a conviction, and jurors on Friday were essentially given two choices: convict Mr. Roeder of pre-meditated murder or send him home.
Mr. Roeder will be sentenced in March; the conviction carries a life sentence, but prosecutors say they hope to ensure that he is not eligible for parole for 50 years. He was also convicted of aggravated assault for aiming his gun at other church members as he fled. Mr. Roeder’s defense team plans to appeal.
The three-week trial was extremely tense, and security measures extremely tight. In addition, a tiny courtroom left abortion-rights leaders sitting, silently, beside those who say violence against abortion providers can be justified.
Throughout, Dr. Tiller’s widow, Jeanne Tiller, sat in the front row, sometimes leaning against family members, other times looking down, her face in her hands. Family lawyers issued a statement on her behalf, describing the verdict as just.
“At this time, we hope that George can be remembered for his legacy of service to women,” the statement said, “the help he provided for those who needed it and the love and happiness he provided us as a husband, father and grandfather.”
Reflecting the split over this case among some abortion opponents, Troy Newman, president of Operation Rescue, which has headquarters here, said he was appalled by Mr. Roeder’s admissions, which he deemed “cold, calculated and despicable,” and unsurprised by the verdict. The anti-abortion movement itself, Mr. Newman said, had not been on trial here.
“Pro-life is a vibrant, relevant movement in America,” he said. “Scott Roeder is not.”
But Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue (who is in a dispute with Mr. Newman over the rights to the group’s name), described the trial as a “scam” because, he contended, Mr. Roeder had not been permitted to “really tell his side of the story.”
By not allowing Mr. Roeder to present, for example, descriptions and images of aborted fetuses, Mr. Terry said, jurors could not fully understand why he had killed Dr. Tiller.
Emma Graves Fitzsimmons contributed reporting from Chicago.