Crime & Courts

Abortion issue front and center in Roeder murder trial

When Scott Roeder's murder trial begins Monday, the question won't be whether or not he killed George Tiller.

Roeder, 51, has already admitted shooting the Wichita abortion provider.

But that's not the only thing that will set Roeder's case apart from a typical first-degree murder trial.

The day of Tiller's death, abortion-rights advocates claimed rhetoric by abortion opponents went too far and pushed someone to kill one of the country's four late-term abortion providers.

Anti-abortion advocates immediately disavowed Roeder's actions, claiming they never supported violence in their pursuit to end Tiller's practice.

Now, Roeder's defense may say that the failures of the anti-abortion movement to close Tiller's clinic drove Roeder to kill Tiller.

Court officials said they have received media credential requests from more than 100 journalists who plan to cover the trial. In Session, formerly known as Court TV, also is airing the trial.

The high-profile nature of the case, with the contentious abortion issue as a backdrop, has law enforcement officials on heightened alert. Courthouse security is being beefed up, complete with bomb-sniffing dogs provided by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

"We're planning for the worst and hoping for the best," said Sedgwick County Sheriff Bob Hinshaw.

Jury selection is set to begin Monday.

Severity of charges

Instructions on what charges may be considered by jurors won't be decided until the conclusion of evidence.

But the trial judge, Warren Wilbert, said Friday he could envision giving jurors the options of charges less severe than first-degree murder.

Wilbert, however, said he would not allow the abortion debate to consume the trial.

But an expert who has studied the abortion controversy said it's still possible that debate will be in the minds of jurors.

Prosecutors said they would fight attempts to lessen the charge and would seem to have ample evidence to support a case for premeditated murder.

Roeder lived in Kansas City, Mo., and witnesses say he was seen several times at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita before he killed Tiller on May 31 in the foyer outside the sanctuary.

Tiller, 67, attended the church and was serving as an usher that morning.

Roeder has said he killed to protect the lives of the unborn being aborted at Tiller's Women's Health Care Services clinic in Wichita.

Wilbert, however, has said that to pass legal hurdles, a "defense of others" would require an imminent threat — something Tiller didn't pose in church.

There are lesser charges than murder, however, that Wilbert said could play a role at trial, which may become the focus of the defense.

Criteria for lesser charge

Voluntary manslaughter is an intentional killing committed under the "unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force."

"This will not become a trial about the abortion issue," Wilbert said in a hearing Friday. "It will be limited to his beliefs and how he came to form those beliefs."

Roeder's beliefs, however, are widespread in the abortion debate, said Cynthia Gorney, who has studied the evolution of the abortion debate over decades.

Gorney, author of the book "Articles of Faith," said last week that even those anti-abortion advocates who publicly decry Roeder's actions may privately struggle with the case.

"There have been some really thoughtful people who have been thinking about this and debating this for years," Gorney said. "If it's OK to block an entrance, is it OK to glue the locks shut?"

The logic can quickly move, Gorney said, to disabling medical equipment inside a clinic. It can end with comparing their efforts to John Brown's use of violence to end slavery, which several anti-abortion activists already have done in the Roeder case.

A witness at a Kansas City women's health clinic said she saw Roeder trying to glue the locks shut the day before Tiller's shooting.

Gorney explained the view of some of the people who think the unborn have lives this way:

"If someone were standing on a corner shooting 3-year-olds, people would think he had to be stopped," Gorney said. "That's how they see abortion."

Personal views on abortions, then, could color how people view a crime, she said.

But unlike death penalty cases, where personal views on a controversial subject are public, much of the questioning of jurors by lawyer in Roeder's trial will take place behind closed doors.

Wilbert has denied public access to jury selection in this trial, saying it would have a "chilling effect" on juror candor. Individuals will be questioned in private, giving their personal information to five lawyers, the judge and Roeder.

The Eagle, the Associated Press, KWCH-TV and other media outlets will ask the Kansas Supreme Court on Monday to open access to juror questioning.

Roeder's path

Scott Roeder was born in 1958 while his father attended seminary in Denver, family members have said.

As a teenager, both Roeder and his brother were diagnosed with bipolar disorder — a mental illness where a person alternates between a manic state of extreme excitability and severe depression.

Ex-wife Lindsey Roeder said Scott Roeder grew up with a supportive father, whom he rebelled against as many teenagers do. She and Scott Roeder were married for 10 years, divorcing in 1996. They have a son.

Lindsey Roeder said her husband began following more conservative religious beliefs in 1992. When finances became tighter, Lindsey said Scott Roeder stopped paying his taxes and started joining anti-government groups.

"Then we began the truly slippery slope to where he is today," Lindsey Roeder said in an e-mail. "Scott became obsessed with not paying taxes, anti-government movement, gun control and pro-life, pretty much in this order."

Scott Roeder had separated from his wife and son in 1996 and was living with his father in Silver Lake, just outside of Topeka, when Shawnee County Sheriff's deputies stopped him that April for having an illegal license plate.

Inside the car, the deputies found ammunition, a blasting cap, a fuse cord, a 1-pound can of gunpowder and two 9-volt batteries, with one connected to a switch that could have been used to trigger a bomb.

A misdemeanor conviction was later overturned after an appeals court found the deputies had illegally seized evidence.

But that August, Lindsey Roeder said, her son came to her upset, saying his dad had claimed he planned to blow up an abortion clinic.

Danger follows Tiller

Tiller's clinic in Wichita had been the target of a pipe bomb in 1986 and become the center of the nation's abortion debate in 1991 when thousands protested outside during the "Summer of Mercy."

Tiller had lectured worldwide on abortion procedures. He was one of a few doctors who would perform late-term abortions — allowed by law in cases where doctors determined carrying the pregnancy to term threatened the physical or mental health of the woman.

Tiller was shot in both arms in 1993 by Rachelle "Shelley" Shannon, who was convicted of attempted murder. She was sentenced to 11 years in prison, then another 20 years in federal prison on a conviction of using fire and acid to attack other abortion clinics around the country.

Security measures at the clinic included making sure Tiller never had to walk to his car from outside the clinic.

The security measures didn't follow him to church.

May 31, 2009

Witnesses at a preliminary hearing in July testified that the morning of May 31, Tiller was standing at the snack table, where pastries and coffee were available for parishioners.

As he often did, Tiller was serving as an usher. His wife, Jeanne, was singing in the choir.

Gary Hoepner, another usher, recalled talking to Tiller about a local bakery he liked. Hoepner said Roeder walked out of the sanctuary, put a gun to Tiller's head and fired a single shot.

Hoepner and fellow church member Keith Martin said Roeder pointed a gun at them while fleeing the church. He's charged with two counts of aggravated assault.

Thorton Anderson was arriving late to church services when he saw a man running and people yelling after him. Anderson took note of the license number off Roeder's car.

Roeder was arrested later that day in Johnson County.

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