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?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk