Wichita, Kansas – In a blow to the defense, the judge in Scott Roeder’s murder trial ruled Thursday that jurors will not be allowed to consider the less serious charge of voluntary manslaughter.
The ruling by Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert came after Roeder took the stand Thursday, admitting he killed abortion doctor George Tiller in his church last May and that he had been thinking about doing so since 1993.
“There was nothing being done and the legal process had been exhausted, and these babies were dying every day,” Roeder said. “The lives of those children were in imminent danger. If someone did not stop him, the babies were going to continue to die.”
Closing arguments will begin Friday morning, and then jurors will begin deliberations on whether to convict Roeder of premeditated, first-degree murder.
The defense presented its case on Thursday with Roeder as its only witness.
Roeder had hoped that if he had the chance to explain in detail to jurors why he killed Tiller, they might see the necessity of his actions and convict him of voluntary manslaughter.
In fact, that became a linch-pin issue in the past month after the judge said he would allow such testimony. That decision galvanized those on both sides of the issue.
Roeder supporters were delighted that he would have the chance to expose what they described as a “baby-killing industry.” But abortion-rights advocates were outraged, saying that turning the trial into a referendum on abortion could lead to further violence against doctors.
In the end, Wilbert allowed the testimony but restricted how much Roeder could say about abortion. And at the end of the day he ruled that he would not give jurors the option of considering a voluntary manslaughter conviction.
Such a defense requires that a person must be stopping the imminent use of unlawful force, he said.
“There’s no imminence of danger on a Sunday morning in the back of a church,” Wilbert said, “let alone unlawful conduct.”
“In the state of Kansas, abortions are legal.”
Dressed in a black suit, white shirt and red tie, Roeder began testifying before noon after Wilbert denied the defense’s attempt to call former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline as a witness.
Roeder testified that the evidence presented by the prosecution was accurate, and in fact he added some details.
Roeder said he bought a .22-caliber handgun on May 18, went target shooting with it on May 30 and used it to shoot Tiller in the forehead on May 31 while Tiller was serving as an usher in his church.
During his testimony, Roeder also revealed that he had taken a loaded gun to Tiller’s church on three prior occasions — in August 2008, on May 24 and to an evening service the night before Tiller died. He said he intended to kill Tiller each time, but Tiller was not at those services.
And Roeder disclosed what he did with the .22-caliber Taurus handgun that he used to shoot Tiller. He said he stopped in Burlington, Kan., while heading home to Kansas City on U.S. Highway 75 after the shooting.
“There was a parking lot with gravel and a big dirt pile,” he said. “I wrapped the gun in cloth and then buried it in the dirt.”
He said he intended to eventually retrieve the still-loaded gun if he hadn’t been caught. Roeder testified that he later told his attorneys where to find the gun but that efforts to locate it were unsuccessful.
Roeder also said that he’d considered other ways to stop Tiller from performing abortions, including cutting Tiller’s hands off with a sword and taking a sniper shot at him outside his clinic.
Roeder said he ultimately chose to kill Tiller in church because it was the only place the doctor was accessible.
“He had an armored vehicle, a bulletproof vest, a security guard escort…he lived in a gated community,” he said. “It (church) was the only window of opportunity that I saw where he could be stopped.”
Roeder testified that he admired Shelley Shannon, the woman who shot and wounded Tiller in 1993, and he had visited her in prison in Topeka. He said he also sought out other abortion foes who were open to using force against abortion doctors and considered them his friends.
Roeder said he’d been to Tiller’s church as far back as 2002 and protested there a couple of times after that. He said that in August 2008, he took a loaded 9 mm Smith & Wesson revolver to Tiller’s church, wearing it on a shoulder harness and hiding it under his suit coat. But Tiller wasn’t there, he said. On May 24, he returned to the church with a gun in his pocket, but left when he found that Tiller again wasn’t there.
Roeder said he decided to keep going back until he succeeded at killing Tiller. On Saturday, May 30, Roeder said, he practiced shooting his gun at his brother’s residence outside of Topeka, then drove to Wichita, stopping in rural areas along the way to practice some more.
He said he took the loaded gun to the church’s 5 p.m. service, but Tiller wasn’t there. He returned to the church shortly before 10 a.m. on Sunday, backed into a parking spot and sat in a back pew. He said he saw Tiller enter the sanctuary, look around and leave.
“I got up at that moment and followed him out in the foyer area,” Roeder said. “I did what I thought was needed to be done to protect the children. I shot him.”
He said he lingered for two or three seconds and saw Tiller fall to the floor, then ran out. Roeder admitted that he pointed the gun at two ushers who chased him as he fled but said he never intended to harm them.
He said he stopped on his way home to get gas and some pizza because “I was hungry.” He planned to go to work the next day, but added, “I felt that eventually, I would be apprehended.”
Roeder began his testimony by telling jurors how he became involved in the abortion issue. He said he attended church with his family as a boy, but didn’t develop a firm belief in Christ until 1992, when he said he was “born again.”
“I had been watching the 700 Club regularly… I was alone in my living room and that day I kneeled down and I did accept Christ as my Savior at that time,” he said.
After that, he said, he began to develop strong beliefs about abortion.
Prosecutors objected numerous times as Roeder attempted to describe various abortion procedures — particularly when he mentioned one “where they go in and tear the baby limb from limb.” The judge told Roeder he could not talk about specific procedures or issues on which he had no expertise.
Roeder said he became involved in sidewalk counseling outside abortion clinics in Kansas City and at Tiller’s clinic, trying to talk women out of getting an abortion.
“We did have a few successes,” he said. But he said he became increasingly frustrated because Tiller remained in business: “He was one of the three late-term abortionists in the country.”
Roeder said that continual protests, sidewalk counseling and other attempts to stop Tiller were unsuccessful. Even when the clinic was bombed in 1986 and Shannon shot Tiller in 1993, Tiller didn’t stop, Roeder said.
He said he was hopeful that the law would step in and do something, and he was excited when Kline filed charges against Tiller in 2006. But those charges were dismissed the next day on jurisdictional grounds, and misdemeanor criminal charges filed later by Kline’s successor resulted in Tiller being found not guilty by a jury in March 2009.
Prior to the defense’s opening statement, Roeder’s attorneys brought Kline before the judge to describe what his testimony would be. The defense wanted Kline to testify about his investigation of Tiller. Kline spent 45 minutes answering questions about the case.
Afterward, an irritated Wilbert said Kline couldn’t testify, saying that doing so would result in a debate on abortion.
“To bring in Phill Kline to somehow collaterally bolster up his (Roeder’s) beliefs or give them credence or validity is not appropriate,” he said. “As I sit here and listen to Phill Kline testify, it’s exactly what this court seeks to avoid.”
He said he “would not allow this courtroom to turn into a referendum on abortion.”
Wilbert had barred Roeder from using a so-called necessity defense, an argument that the killing was necessary to prevent a greater harm — saying such a defense wasn’t recognized by Kansas law. But the judge allowed Roeder to present evidence that he sincerely believed his actions were justified to save unborn children — a defense that could lead to a conviction on the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter.