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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Federal charges possible for Scott Roeder

BY JUDY THOMAS
Kansas City Star

For a week, a federal investigator sat in a Wichita courtroom and listened to testimony that Scott Roeder murdered abortion provider George Tiller.

Even after the conviction came a week ago, federal investigators are still at work.

They are looking into whether the 51-year-old Kansas City man truly acted alone; at least one Roeder supporter made a striking comment about the crime last week. They might consider federal charges against Roeder as well.

It's happened before: Two other anti-abortion activists who killed abortion providers in the 1990s were charged with violating the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, signed into law in 1994 to prevent clinic violence. Like Roeder, the activists also were convicted of state murder charges.

Why push for federal charges when prosecutors already are assured of a long sentence?

"Additional penalties that can be assessed," said Richard Levy, a University of Kansas law professor who followed Roeder's trial. "That way, they could avoid any chance of him ever being paroled.

"Another reason for a federal prosecution is that if there might be others involved, a federal case might provide a vehicle for getting that information, whereas the state may not have an interest or the wherewithal to investigate a conspiracy that involves people in several states."

Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, said federal charges also "really do help prevent other violent activity. It serves as a deterrent for those who might want to follow in their footsteps."

Contact with other anti-abortion activists

A Sedgwick County jury found Roeder guilty of first-degree murder Jan. 29. He faces life in prison when sentenced March 9, and prosecutors said they would request that he not be eligible for parole for 50 years.

The federal clinic access law offers a life sentence with no chance for parole.

Federal investigators also say they are looking into whether anyone else played a role in the crime, which could result in other federal charges.

Federal authorities last week heard Roeder tell jurors that he began thinking about killing Tiller as far back as 1993, when Rachelle "Shelley" Shannon shot Tiller in both arms as he was leaving his clinic. During cross-examination by Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston, Roeder said he sought out people who shared his belief that killing abortion providers was an act of justifiable homicide.

Roeder testified that he visited Shannon in prison in Topeka and that he admired her for shooting Tiller. He also said he and Shannon applauded others who had been involved in abortion-related violence.

"And these individuals were people you might have counted among your friends?" Foulston asked.

"Yes," Roeder replied.

"His testimony was chilling, and the response of the extremists attending the trial was chilling," Saporta said. "Shelley Shannon is a martyr and hero of this group of extremists who believe in justifiable homicide."

This week, Shannon issued a statement from prison.

"Abortionists are killed because they are serial murderers of innocent children who must be stopped, and they will continue to be stopped, even though Scott didn't get a fair trial," Shannon wrote in an e-mail to Iowa anti-abortion activist Dave Leach. "May God bless Scott for his faithfulness and brave actions and stand."

In an interview, Leach said that any conspiracy investigation is an attack on free speech.

"The most incendiary thing that we put out is where we quote what God says about abortion and taking action to save people from abortion," Leach said.

"There's no conspiracy here. Conspiracy is where you secretly talk with others about how you're going to commit a crime. Unless we're going to redefine it to mean when people talk about what's right and wrong and say it publicly and put it on TV shows and Internet blogs, there's nothing going on here."

After last week's verdict, Foulston declined to say whether she thought others were involved in Tiller's killing.

"I'm not with the federal government, and that is up to them to make those determinations," she said.

Mark Rudy, one of Roeder's attorneys, said last week, "I really don't know anything about a federal investigation regarding a conspiracy. It goes beyond the scope of my involvement."

Saporta said abortion-rights officials met with an assistant U.S. attorney general in Washington during the trial.

"We remain concerned that those who believe in justifiable homicide will continue to act on that belief," Saporta said.

Federal convictions

Two others who acted on it were charged and convicted in federal court.

In July 1994, Paul Hill killed an abortion provider and his bodyguard with a 12-gauge shotgun as they drove into a Pensacola, Fla., clinic. He became the first person in the country to be tried under the federal clinic access law. He was convicted in October 1994 and received two life sentences in federal prison.

Hill then was tried on state murder charges in Florida in November 1994. It took the jury just 20 minutes to convict him, and he was sentenced to die in Florida's electric chair.

At his sentencing, Kansas City activist Regina Dinwiddie was arrested when she jumped up and shouted at the judge, "This man is innocent, and his blood will be on your hands and the hands of the people of the state of Florida and on the jury!"

Dinwiddie also attended Roeder's trial last week.

At the end of 1994, a federal grand jury in Virginia, working with the Justice Department, began issuing subpoenas to some who were most militant in the anti-abortion movement. The list included Michael Bray, now of Ohio; Anthony Leake, a Kansas City-area activist; and Don Spitz, director of Pro-Life Virginia who now runs the Army of God Web site. Bray and Leake attended Roeder's trial.

Despite the connections among extremists and the acts of violence described in the Army of God manual that circulated among them, federal authorities never were able to prove that there was a conspiracy behind the violence, and the grand jury disbanded in 1996.

"They never came up with anything," Leake told the Kansas City Star in an interview after Tiller was killed. "And there's not anything there."

In 1998, James Kopp killed abortion provider Barnett Slepian by firing into the kitchen of Slepian's suburban Buffalo, N.Y., home. Kopp was charged with second-degree murder in state court and on federal charges of violating the clinic access law by using deadly force. He was convicted in both cases and sentenced to 25 years to life in prison on the state charge and life in prison without parole on the federal charge.

Kopp argued that trying him on federal charges would violate the U.S. Constitution's double jeopardy clause, which protects people from being tried twice for the same crime, but a judge rejected his argument.

Reach Judy L. Thomas at 816-234-4334 or jthomas@kcstar.com.

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