The right-to-life militant who rose from his pew in a Wichita, Kansas, church one Sunday last May and shot dead a local abortion provider, George Tiller, was found guilty of first degree murder yesterday. As controversial as the trial was – and as fraught as the debate over abortion remains – the jury took just 37 minutes to deliberate.
The verdict, which is likely to spell life imprisonment for Scott Roeder, brought to an abrupt end a trial that become a crucible for a debate in America that never seems to end. Opponents of abortion condemned it and predicted it would only cause more violence while advocates for abortion rights lauded it.
In a tiny Wichita courtroom, the trial reached an emotional pinnacle and key legal pivot on Thursday. It was the moment when the defence team put their only witness on the stand to testify – Roeder himself. He variously admitted to shooting Dr Tiller, to planning the murder for more than a year and even contemplating other forms of assault, such as slicing his hands off with a sword.
But Thursday also saw a crucial ruling by the judge in the case related to the argument that was at the heart of Roeder's defence: that though there was no disputing that the murder had taken place – he pulled the trigger of the gun only after pressing the barrel into the skin of the victim's forehead – he was acting out of a conviction that he was protecting the lives of the unborn and felt he was doing the right thing.
It had been the contention of the defence that this so-called justification for the killing warranted making the case one of involuntary manslaughter instead of first degree murder. Abortion advocates and many legal experts across the country were enraged when the judge at first said he was keeping an open mind as to the soundness of the argument. But late on Thursday he indicated he would not allow the jury to consider manslaughter.
That there was not much doubt for the jury seemed clear from the remarkable speed of their deliberations. As the foreman read out the verdict, Roeder looked ahead, his face free of visible emotion save for rapid blinking.
Just a day earlier, the courtroom had heard Roeder coolly agree with the prosecution's description with what happened on the day of the killing. "That is correct, yes," when asked if he had killed the doctor. "I did what I thought was needed to be done to protect the children. I shot him," he testified, adding at another point: "If I didn't do it, the babies were going to die the next day."
In closing arguments, the prosecution rejected any notion that the killing could be excused. "He claims justification," Kim Parker, prosecuting, said. "These are not the acts of a justified man. These acts are cowardly."
Dr Tiller had been only one of a few doctors in the US still offering late-term abortions. Prosecutors pointed out that he was never in violation of Kansas's abortion laws.