WICHITA, Kan. — After 37 minutes of deliberation, a jury today found Scott Roeder guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller.
Jurors also convicted Roeder of two counts of aggravated assault for threatening two men who chased him as he fled Tiller’s church after the shooting.
Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert set Roeder’s sentencing for March 9. Roeder faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.
The prosecution said it will pursue a “hard 50” sentence, which means 50 years in prison with no chance of parole.
The courtroom was silent as the verdict was read — Wilbert had warned each day against any disturbances. The jurors appeared serious and focused, and Roeder showed no emotion.
Tiller’s widow, Jeanne, lowered her head. As the family walked out, they hugged. Someone who had been sitting with them displayed a button that said, “Attitude is everything,” which had been one of Tiller’s favorite phrases.
The verdict came on the sixth day of Roeder’s trial in a high-profile case that brought both national abortion-rights leaders and anti-abortion militants to Wichita to watch it unfold.
Roeder took the stand Thursday as the only witness called by the defense after Wilbert refused to allow former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline testify about why he filed charges against Tiller in 2006. The charges were dismissed on jurisdictional grounds.
Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, was charged with premeditated, first-degree murder in Tiller’s death. He testified Thursday that he killed Tiller, one of a handful of doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions, on May 31.
Roeder told jurors that 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 while Tiller was serving as an usher in his church.
Roeder also revealed that he had taken a loaded gun to Tiller’s church on three previous occasions — in August 2008, the Sunday before the shooting and the night before the shooting — but Tiller was not at those services.
Roeder testified that over the years, he’d considered other ways to stop Tiller from performing abortions, including cutting Tiller’s hands off with a sword, ramming Tiller’s car with his own, and taking a sniper shot at Tiller outside his clinic. But he said he ended up choosing to kill Tiller in his church because “it was the only window of opportunity that I saw where he could be stopped.”
Roeder’s supporters, several of them who have served prison time for abortion clinic arsons and bombings, were disappointed at the verdict. Abortion-rights advocates said justice was served.
For decades, Tiller and his clinic faced continuous protests because he was one of a handful of doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions. The clinic was bombed in 1986, but no one was ever charged in the incident. In 1991, more than 1,700 anti-abortion activists were arrested for blocking his clinic gates during Operation Rescue’s “Summer of Mercy” protests. In August 1993, an Oregon woman shot and wounded Tiller as he drove out of his clinic.
Abortion foes had long accused Tiller of performing illegal late-term abortions. Kline tried unsuccessfully to prosecute him in 2006, and in 2008, Kline’s successor charged him with 19 counts of allegedly violating a state law that required an independent second physician’s concurring opinion before performing late-term abortions.
A jury found Tiller not guilty last March. Roeder testified Thursday that he attended some of the trial.
Wilbert had barred Roeder from using a so-called necessity defense, aiming for an acquittal by arguing that the killing was necessary to prevent a greater harm – killing babies. But the judge allowed Roeder to present evidence that he sincerely believed his actions were justified to save unborn children — a defense that could have led to a conviction on the lesser offense of voluntary manslaughter.
On Thursday afternoon, however, Wilbert ruled that he would not give jurors the option of considering a voluntary manslaughter conviction, because such a defense requires that a person must be stopping the imminent use of unlawful force.