Courts & Crime

Accused Tiller killer had visited church several times before

WICHITA — The Kansas City man charged with gunning down Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller visited the church where the shooting occurred several times before the murder, witnesses told jurors on Monday.

“I’d seen him several times before,” said Keith Martin, who was ushering with Tiller at Reformation Lutheran Church the day Tiller was shot to death. “He was by himself every time.”

Martin said he was suspicious of Scott Roeder at first because the church had been the target of abortion protesters for years.

“People come in pretending to be visitors, then after a few minutes of worship they’ll stand up and start hollering,” he said, adding that some abortion foes had tried to disrupt communion, take over the lectern and shout at church members coming and going.

But Martin said that after Roeder had visited several times and not caused any problems, “I got to thinking maybe I’d misjudged him” and that “it was kind of an un-Christian thing to do.”

Roeder, 51, 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 Martin and another usher 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.

On the second day of testimony in the trial, jurors also heard from Gary Hoepner, a church usher who said he saw Roeder shoot Tiller.

Hoepner said he and Tiller were standing at a refreshment table in the narthex outside the sanctuary, talking about a local bakery they both liked. Hoepner said he picked up a jelly roll and took a bite when an east sanctuary door opened.

“I saw a gentleman coming out that I’d seen the previous week,” Hoepner said. He said he looked down, because he thought the man was going to the restroom like he’d done the week before and he didn’t want to stare at him.

“As I was looking down at the table, I noticed a movement from the other side,” Hoepner said. “I looked up and this man had walked up to George and put a gun to his head and shot him. He just walked up, put the gun, and boom. Shot him.”

Hoepner described the sound as “a loud popping noise.”

“I was like, is that a real gun?” he said. “Then George fell, and in my mind I repeated, ‘Oh, my God, Oh, my God,’ several times.”

Hoepner said the assailant, whom he identified in the courtroom as Roeder, exited out an east door. Hoepner said he chased Roeder into a grassy area.

“He turned around over his shoulder and said, 'I’ve got a gun. I’ll shoot you.’ And I stopped.”

Hoepner said Roeder also said “something like, Lord forgive me.”

Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston asked Hoepner why he stopped chasing Roeder.

“I thought about my wife,” Hoepner said, his voice breaking. “I could be shot, too, and we’d have two victims.”

Martin, also an usher that day, said he was looking out a window about 10 a.m., “and I heard a noise that I thought was a firecracker.”

He said he looked toward the sanctuary, “and then I saw George on the floor and then I saw someone running across the grass outside the east door.”Martin said he ran after the man, whom he also identified in court as Roeder, carrying a coffee cup. He said took a shorter route to the parking lot and caught up with Roeder as he was climbing into his car, which was backed into a parking stall.

“He was either in or getting in the car…he said, ‘Move,’ ” Martin said of Roeder. “I didn’t move. And he said, ‘Move or I’ll shoot you.’ ”

Martin said Roeder pointed a gun in his face.

“At that point, I felt like he was going to shoot me if I didn’t move, so I moved away. I was just looking right down the barrel, I could see it that clearly.”

As Roeder drove away, Martin said, “his window was down, so I threw my cup of coffee in the window to try to hit him with it.”

Both Martin and Hoepner said they later picked Roeder out of a photo lineup.

“He looks a little thinner today,” Martin said.

When asked what happened to his jelly roll after the shooting, Hoepner said, “I wadded it up and stuck it in my pocket.”

The evidence portion of the trial, which has attracted international attention, began Friday. Those on both sides of the abortion issue arrived early Monday to get a seat in the courtroom. Public seating is being limited to 18 or fewer persons throughout the trial because the courtroom is so small.

Several anti-abortion activists came to support Roeder, including Dave and Dorothy Leach of Des Moines.

“The only hope the prosecutor has is to keep the fact that abortion is the most cruel, unthinkable genocide irrelevant,” said Leach, who wrote a “necessity defense” brief for Roeder to file in his case. “Because the minute the jury gets it into their heads that this fact matters, or that it’s legal to care, there’s no way they’re going to convict Scott of first-degree murder.”

Donna Holman, of Missionaries to the Pre-born, drove a “Truth Van” to the courthouse, covered with graphic pictures of aborted fetuses and the words “RIP In Memorium, 1973-2009 50 million babies.”

“Abortion is premeditated murder,” said Holman, whose husband, Dan, couldn’t come because he is awaiting sentencing in Michigan on an aggravated assault charge for a road rage incident involving the van. “Abortionist Tiller was a mass murderer. You can’t murder a murderer. I believe Scott should be acquitted.”

During testimony Friday, prosecutors objected to any attempt by the defense to bring up the abortion issue. But today, Foulston was the first to raise it, asking Martin about previous disruptions at the church because Tiller performed abortions.

Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert has said that he would not let the trial turn into an abortion debate. But the judge also said he may 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 has said, however, that until the defense wraps up its case, he won’t know whether the evidence will be sufficient enough for him to instruct jurors on considering a voluntary manslaughter conviction.

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.

Other evidence prosecutors intend to present during the trial includes surveillance video showing Roeder leaving a Wichita hotel at 9:30 the morning Tiller was killed and videotape of Roeder’s arrest by Johnson County sheriff’s deputies near Gardner a few hours after the shooting.

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