One of the more chilling scenes in "The Assassination of Dr. Tiller" is captured in grainy courtroom video from March 2009.
There is George Tiller, the Wichita doctor, on trial for 19 misdemeanors related to his controversial late-term abortion practice.
And there, in the back of the courtroom, seated next to the leader of the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, is Scott Roeder, the Kansas City man who — two months after Tiller was cleared on all 19 charges — walked into Tiller's church and shot him.
The first documentary film since Roeder was sentenced to 50 years without parole comes from MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow, whose show at 8 p.m. today will be pre-empted for the film's premiere.
Never miss a local story.
Maddow, who co-created and narrated the film, said she did it to shed new light on the contentious case.
The film, 43 minutes long with commercial breaks, begins as a straightforward true-crime account.
An usher at Wichita's Reformation Lutheran Church, Gary Hoepner, recounts the morning of May 31, 2009, when he saw Roeder raise the gun to Tiller's head and pull the trigger. Wichita homicide chief detective Ken Landwehr, Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston and a member of Roeder's defense team, Mark Rudy, describe Roeder's prosecution and conviction.
Then the film rewinds to tell the story of the two men and what led them to that fateful day: how Tiller became an abortion provider, locked horns with Operation Rescue, was shot in both arms by Shelley Shannon in 1993 and defied every attempt to shut down his practice.
How Roeder committed to the anti-abortion cause after becoming a born-again Christian, walked away from his wife and child, began to consort with extremists and came to believe that "nothing was being done" to stop Tiller — feelings that exploded after the doctor's acquittal.
But the film deviates often from the true-crime genre to make statements about the relationship between
politics and violence.
Maddow describes "a growing sense of paranoia and anxiety" surrounding Tiller as the protests escalated. Several of Tiller's colleagues, including doctors Susan Robinson and Shelly Sella, discuss the climate around the clinic, as do three former patients of Tiller's who agreed to be interviewed on camera.
Operation Rescue's Troy Newman and Randall Terry, who helped lead the protests in the 1990s, and Mark Gietzen, chairman of the Kansas Coalition for Life, agreed to be interviewed by MSNBC.
According to a news release, Newman agreed to participate, despite reservations about Maddow's pro-abortion-rights views, so that he could tell "the story of the tens of thousands of innocent babies killed by abortion during Tiller's long and checkered abortion career."
But that's not all Newman has to say in the film. He's shown describing at length a citywide leaflet campaign Operation Rescue undertook that linked Tiller with his "collaborators," including area businesses such as cab companies. His account is sandwiched between quotes from Tiller's friends and associates, who call the campaign intimidating and say it led to fears for their own safety as well as the safety of Tiller and his family.
"I don't think they could wake up a day and feel secure in the knowledge that nothing was going to happen to them," says Paul Ryding, who was at church the morning Tiller was shot.
Robinson, another doctor at the clinic, describes Roeder as a "rather dull guy" who was merely "reacting to an atmosphere of hatred." She's echoed by her colleague Sella, who says that "if the climate had not been like that... Scott Roeder would not have killed Dr. Tiller."
In an interview with the Kansas City Star, Maddow, a Rhodes Scholar and progressive political activist, elaborated on what useful information she hoped her film would provide.
"Some folks think that extremely radical political tactics are necessary because of their strongly held views on abortion," she said. "There are consequences for that. And those consequences have very little to do with abortion and everything to do with our tolerance for violence and extremism."