Courts & Crime

Accused Tiller killer took target practice, prosecution says

Scott Roeder talks with his attorney during the first day of his trial in Wichita, Kansas. Roeder is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of abortion doctor George Tiller.
Scott Roeder talks with his attorney during the first day of his trial in Wichita, Kansas. Roeder is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting death of abortion doctor George Tiller. Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle/MCT

WICHITA — The man accused of killing Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller bought a gun the week before the slaying and practiced shooting it near Topeka the day before Tiller's death, prosecutors said today.

Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston laid out the prosecution’s case during opening statements of Scott Roeder’s murder trial, describing to jurors the events the morning Tiller was killed.

“It was Scott Roeder who with premeditation and with intent killed Dr. George Tiller on May 31,” she said.

Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Tiller, one of a handful of doctors in the country who performed late-term abortions. Tiller, 67, was shot May 31 while ushering in his church. Roeder also faces two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly threatening two other ushers who chased him as he fled.

Roeder has admitted to reporters and in a court filing that he killed Tiller, saying it was necessary to save unborn babies.

The evidence portion of the trial began Friday — the 37th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion — after a six-day jury selection process, most of which was behind closed doors.

Security was tight at the courthouse today as the evidence portion of the trial began. A black bomb-sniffing dog was in the courtroom before jurors arrived and in the hallways outside during breaks.

Those on both sides of the abortion issue lined up early Friday to get a seat in the courtroom. Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert said public seating would be limited to 18 or fewer persons throughout the trial because the courtroom is so small.

Roeder, dressed in a dark suit and pale blue shirt, showed little emotion during the testimony. When a closeup photo of Tiller’s body was shown to jurors, he scribbled notes on a legal pad.

Tiller’s widow and other family members attended the proceedings, clutching tissues and at times holding hands and comforting each other.

Foulston told jurors that FBI agents who searched Roeder’s house after the shooting found a gun box showing that a .22-caliber Taurus handgun had been purchased, along with a receipt for ammunition at the Bullet Hole in Overland Park on May 28. Other items found, Foulston said, included a May calendar with the 30th and 31st dates highlighted and a brochure from Tiller’s church dated Aug. 24, 2008.

Foulston said authorities determined that the gun was bought at a Lawrence pawn shop on May 18 and that Roeder returned to the store on May 23 to pick it up.

Foulston told jurors that Roeder’s brother, David, of Topeka, called the Kansas Highway Patrol the day after Tiller was killed, saying he was concerned that his fingerprints were on his brother’s gun.

She said David Roeder told authorities that Scott Roeder had been to see him the day before Tiller died. Scott Roeder had just purchased a new gun, his brother said, and wanted to do some target practice. David Roeder told the Highway Patrol that they had gone to some property about 20 miles from Topeka, where Scott Roeder shot at targets.

David Roeder said the gun kept jamming, so he and Scott Roeder took it to a gun shop in Topeka, where a clerk told them that he had the wrong cartridges.

Foulston said authorities retrieved 31 casings and two projectiles on the property. A forensics expert compared the casings with one recovered near Tiller’s body at the church, she said, and determined they were fired from the same gun.

She said the gun was never recovered.

The prosecution’s first witness was Diane Gage, director of emergency communications for Sedgwick County, who described the 911 calls that came in from Reformation Lutheran Church on May 31. Prosecutors then played a tape of church member Kathy Wegner’s call to 911. Wegner was frantic, saying Tiller had been shot and that the suspect was about six feet tall with a thin build.

Gage said dispatchers traced the license plate provided by witnesses within minutes, and that the car was registered to Scott Roeder.

Wegner testified that she arrived late that morning and was setting up a fund-raising table in the foyer when she saw a flash and heard a popping sound.

“And then I saw Dr. Tiller just flat on his back,” she said, her voice breaking.

She said she told her 18-year-old daughter to help Tiller while she called 911.

“He was by himself and I thought he just needed help to get up,” she said.

Foulston told jurors that after Tiller was killed, police officers drove around the area, checking with motels to see whether Roeder had stayed there. They found that Roeder had stayed at the Garden Inn Suites the night before the shooting and had checked out a 9:30 a.m. on May 31. Tiller was killed shortly after 10 a.m.

Foulston also said that Roeder had stayed at the Starlite Motel in Wichita the weekend before Tiller was shot. She said the church’s assistant pastor said that a man had come to the church service the Sunday before, but left after about 10 minutes. He was driving a car that fit the description of Roeder’s car, she said. Foulston said Tiller was on vacation and wasn’t in church that weekend.

During opening statements, Foulston said that when Roeder was arrested three and a half hours later in Johnson County, authorities found red splatters on his black tennis shoes.

“The blood was that of Dr. Tiller,” she said.

About a half-dozen of Roeder’s supporters attended Friday’s session. Roeder glanced at them and smiled as he entered the courtroom. As the session began, the judge warned those in attendance not to cause any outbursts or distractions. During the session, one woman was admonished when she reacted with glee when a photo of Tiller’s body was shown to jurors.

Cathy Ramey, a longtime anti-abortion activist from Oregon, said she came to Wichita to observe the trial.

“I’m here because I believe that God has a consistent standard of justice and whatever force is necessary to protect an innocent born person ought to be applied to an innocent unborn person as well,” Ramey said. Regina Dinwiddie, a friend of Roeder’s from Kansas City, showed reporters a petition that she had been taking around Wichita. It said, “We, the undersigned, declare the justice of taking all godly action necessary to defend innocent human life,. We proclaim that whatever force is legitimate to defend the life of a born child is legitimate to defend the life of an unborn child. We further declare that if Scott Roeder shot and killed George Tiller, Roeder’s actions are morally justified if they were necessary for the purpose of defending innocent human life. Under these conditions, Scott Roeder should be acquitted of all charges.”

Dinwiddie said she’d gathered about 100 signatures on her petition.

“The tide is turning,,” she said.

The judge 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 said he would allow 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.

Kansas law defines voluntary manslaughter as intentional killing committed “upon an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.”

A voluntary manslaughter conviction could carry a prison term of less than five years, while first-degree murder carries a life sentence with a chance of parole after 25 years.

The judge said, however, that until the defense wrapped up its case, he didn’t know whether the evidence would be sufficient enough for him to instruct jurors that they could consider a voluntary manslaughter conviction. Wilbert said he would consider the testimony on a witness-by-witness basis and would not allow the trial to turn into a debate on abortion.

Prosecutors have argued that such a defense is invalid because Tiller was killed in his church and did not pose an imminent threat at the time of the killing, and the judge acknowledged in a pre-trial hearing that “admittedly, the defense has a formidable and daunting task in this trial.” However, Wilbert said, Roeder was entitled to present his defense and receive a fair trial.

Before Friday’s session began, deputy District Attorney Ann Swegle asked Wilbert to reconsider his stance on allowing Roeder to present such testimony, saying it was a back-door attempt to use the necessity defense.

“We have a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” she said, “the wolf being the necessity defense.” The sheep’s clothing, she said, was a voluntary manslaughter conviction.

The judge again denied prosecutors’s request, saying that “pre-emptively deal with that matter at this time is premature and inappropriate.”

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