Gary Hoepner doesn’t want the man he watched kill abortion provider George Tiller in an east Wichita church five years ago to ever leave prison.
The Kansas Supreme Court on Friday unanimously upheld Scott Roeder’s first-degree murder conviction, but vacated his Hard 50 life sentence and ordered the case back to Sedgwick County for resentencing.
“I don’t like that – oh, my gosh,” Hoepner said when he learned of the court’s action. “They should put him in prison and leave him there.
“That was probably the most traumatic day of my life.”
Hoepner was serving as an usher with Tiller inside Reformation Lutheran Church on May 31, 2009. Roeder walked up, put a gun to Tiller’s forehead and pulled the trigger, Hoepner said.
“The whole thing was just surreal,” said Hoepner, who along with Keith Martin followed Roeder out a side door and tried to stop him until he threatened to shoot them as well.
Roeder, 56, was found guilty of first-degree murder in Tiller’s death and two counts of aggravated assault for threatening to shoot Hoepner and Martin.
Roeder, an anti-abortion activist, said he was trying to save unborn children when he killed Tiller, who performed abortions at his east Wichita clinic.
Roeder testified at his trial that his conversion to Christianity in 1992 ultimately led to a strong opposition to abortion. He said he often demonstrated at abortion clinics and focused on Tiller because he was one of three doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions.
After seeing other attempts to prevent Tiller from performing abortions fail, Roeder testified that he decided to kill Tiller.
The state Supreme Court said in its ruling Friday that Sedgwick County District Court did not err in denying Roeder’s motion for change of venue; in ruling that Roeder could not present evidence supporting a necessity defense or have the jury instructed on the necessity defense, and in denying Roeder’s request for a charge of voluntary manslaughter based on imperfect defense-of-others.
But the justices ruled that Roeder’s sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 50 years violated his constitutional rights because it was imposed by a judge and not by a jury.
A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Virginia case found that giving judges the sole authority to impose such mandatory minimum sentences was unconstitutional. The ruling prompted the Kansas Legislature to amend state law to have jurors make that determination.
In Friday’s ruling in Roeder’s case, and in several other cases where Hard 50 sentences were vacated, the Kansas Supreme Court has not ruled on whether prosecutors can impanel a jury to resentence defendants like Roeder under the new Hard 50 statute.
Sedgwick County District Attorney Mark Bennett said Friday in a news release that he anticipates seeking a new Hard 50 sentencing hearing for Roeder. Under Kansas law, the other sentencing option for first-degree murder is life with no parole opportunity for 25 years.
The thought of having to testify in another hearing holds no appeal for Hoepner.
“I thought this was all behind me,” he said. “Actually, it’s kind of in the back of your mind all the time.
“I don’t know how anybody can completely get over it.”
Contributing: Tony Rizzo of The Kansas City Star