Crime & Courts

March 27, 2010

Roeder may call character witnesses at sentencing

The man who gunned down abortion provider George Tiller and insisted it was justified hopes to call character witnesses at his sentencing next week.

The man who gunned down abortion provider George Tiller and insisted it was justified hopes to call character witnesses at his sentencing next week.

The divisive issue of abortion — for the most part kept out of the murder trial itself — is expected to get an airing Thursday before Scott Roeder is sentenced to life in prison. Roeder has been gathering suggestions from supporters as he prepares his remarks and has asked some longtime friends and fellow anti-abortion activists to testify on his behalf.

"It is a public moment in which people get their last look at this guy," said Michael Kaye, director of Washburn University School of Law's Center for Excellence in Advocacy in Topeka.

Roeder, 52, of Kansas City, Mo., was convicted in January of first-degree murder for shooting Tiller to death May 31 at the physician's east Wichita church. Roeder also was convicted of two counts of aggravated assault for threatening two ushers who tried to stop him after the shooting.

"You can't get around the fact that this is a different kind of case," Kaye said. "It sounds like what we would call an assassination. It is a political trial, whether the judge thinks it is political or not.

"What is going to happen for him is an opportunity to say something

publicly about what he believes," Kaye said.

Tiller's family also will also be given a chance to speak at the sentencing.

Attorney Lee Thompson, who represents the Tillers, said it has not yet been determined how they plan to handle the victim impact statement.

Under Kansas law, Roeder faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years on the first-degree murder conviction. But District Judge Warren Wilbert must decide whether to grant prosecutors' request that Roeder be required to serve at least 50 years behind bars before he is eligible for parole.

Kansas law allows for the harsher sentence in the event of aggravating circumstances, one of which is prior stalking of the victim. Roeder testified he took a gun into Tiller's church on two previous occasions, and checked out his clinic and the gated subdivision where he lived.

Also pending is a defense motion for a new trial. Roeder's lawyers argue the judge erred by not allowing jurors to consider a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

Defense attorney Mark Rudy on Friday declined to comment on the character witnesses, but he said the defense is challenging the constitutionality of a possible "Hard 50" sentence.

"I hope he doesn't get the Hard 50," Rudy said. "That is the only thing that is in play here."

Dave Leach, an anti-abortion activist from Des Moines, said Roeder has asked him and other friends to testify.

Leach said he and several other supporters have given Roeder ideas for his sentencing statement, but he did not know what Roeder planned to say.

Related content