Doctor Killer Convicted in Closely Watched Case

Anti-abortion violence

In a trial followed intently by activists on both sides of the abortion debate, Scott Roeder was convicted of first-degree murder by a Wichita, Kan., jury on Jan. 29 for shooting Dr. George Tiller in the head at point-blank range. Roeder, 51, who also was convicted of two counts of aggravated assault for pointing a gun at two of Tiller’s fellow churchgoers, was to be sentenced March 9 and faced a possible life sentence in prison.

The assassination of Tiller, who was one of the few doctors in the nation who perform late-term abortions and who had been shot in both arms in 1993 by another “pro-life” activist, was the eighth murder carried out by anti-abortion zealots since 1993, according to NARAL Pro-Choice America. In that period, more than 40 abortion facilities were bombed and 175 subjected to arson attacks.

There was no dispute over the fact that Roeder approached Tiller, 67, shortly before services began in the doctor’s church last May 31, pressed a gun to his forehead and fired.

“I did what I thought was needed to be done to protect the children,” Roeder testified. “I shot him.” He said he had no regrets.

In chilling detail, Roeder calmly described how he had contemplated shooting Tiller at his home (difficult since he lived in a gated community) or from a rooftop near his clinic, or even slicing off the doctor’s hands with a sword. He rejected the last option because, he said, even with no hands Tiller could instruct other physicians how to perform abortions. Roeder also recalled going to Tiller’s church with a gun one year before the shooting and again just a week earlier.

Defense attorneys tried in vain to persuade Judge Warren Wilbert to let the jury consider a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, arguing that Roeder believed that by killing Tiller he would save unborn children. Kansas state law allows the lesser charge for people with “an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.” But such a defense can only be used if the accused thought a person was in “imminent” danger of death, and Kansas case law makes it clear that imminence actually requires that the supposed victim be present. “There is no imminence of danger on a Sunday morning in the back of a church, let alone any unlawful conduct, given what Tiller did at his clinic Monday through Friday is lawful in Kansas,” Judge Wilbert said in refusing to allow the jury to consider the lesser charge.

Although many pro-choice activists had worried about the judge in the case — he paid to have his name added to an anti-abortion ad along with other politicians in 2008 — the case ended without controversy. As prosecutor Ann Swegle said in her closing argument, the murder was simply “a planned assassination.”

It took the jury only 37 minutes to agree.