Pro-life zealot on trial over US murder of 'hated' doctor

It was at a church in rural Kansas in May that the doctor who had become the ultimate hate figure for the United States's "pro-life" movement was shot dead. Yesterday a court in Wichita began hearing evidence against the man accused of murdering him.

The case of Dr George Tiller, one of the last doctors in the country to continue to practise late terminations in defiance of the anti-abortionists, reveals how polarised and how fiercely, sometimes homicidally emotional the struggle between the two sides has become. The trial, like the events surrounding the murder itself, will be closely scrutinised by both sides in the abortion debate in America. Dr Tiller had been a prime target of abortion opponents for more than 25 years, keeping his Wichita clinic open for years in spite of repeated assaults against the property and indeed against himself.

The right-to-life movement was quick to condemn the murder, but nonetheless has since found itself on the defensive over it.

Yesterday the court heard evidence from Gary Hoepner, a witness to the killing who by his own testimony might well have become a second victim.

Dr Tiller was a regular usher at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita and Mr Hoepner was serving as an usher alongside him on Sunday 31 May. Morning service had just ended and he and Dr Tiller were reaching for doughnuts at the snack table when, according to Mr Hoepner, the defendant came up to the doctor and shot him in the head at close range.

Mr Hoepner was one of several people in the church that Sunday morning or in the parking area outside who were called upon to describe the scene when Dr Tiller was killed. The man he claimed pulled the trigger is Scott Roeder of Kansas City, Missouri, who has been charged with gunning down the 67-year-old physician.

Mr Hoepner testified that at first he didn't know if the gun was real because it made a sound like a pop gun.

"George fell to the ground and I just said in my mind 'oh my God'," he told the court. "It was surreal, it sounded like a pop-gun". Mr Hoepner recalled instinctively running after the defendant after he left the church, but stopped when the man turned and told him: "I've got a gun and I'll shoot you." He told the judge: "I believed him and I stopped. I don't argue with a man with a gun."

Mr Roeder, 51, has been charged with premeditated murder and two counts of aggravated assault, one against Mr Hoepner. He had a history of evangelising against Dr Tiller and other abortion doctors in online postings where he sometimes went by the name of "ServantofMessiah".

He has not admitted guilt in the case, but in an interview in his prison cell he told one journalist that if he was to be convicted his motive for the killing was to protect the unborn. If he is convicted of first-degree murder he faces life in prison, with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

Dr Tiller was shot in both arms by an anti-abortion activist in 1993 and was frequently threatened with violence.

Abortions were declared legal by the Supreme Court in its landmark Roe v Wade ruling of 1973, but as the Tilley murder trial proves, the issue remains profoundly divisive. "This is so much more than just a murder in Wichita," said Gloria Allred, a prominent women's rights lawyer, told The New York Times.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada