Courts & Crime

Feds still exploring charges in Tiller murder after guilty verdict

For a week, a federal investigator sat in a Wichita courtroom and watched testimony that Scott Roeder murdered abortion doctor George Tiller.

Even after the conviction came a week ago, federal investigators are still at work.

They are looking into whether the 51-year-old Kansas City man acted alone even as at least one Roeder supporter made a striking comment about the crime last week. And they’re considering other federal charges against Roeder as well.

It has happened before.

Two other anti-abortion activists who killed abortion doctors in the 1990s were charged with violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, which is also known as FACE. It was passed by Congress and signed into law in 1994 to prevent clinic violence. Like Roeder, both activists also were convicted of state murder charges.

But why push for federal charges when prosecutors are assured of a long sentence?

“Additional penalties that can be assessed,” said Richard Levy, a University of Kansas law professor who followed Roeder’s trial. “That way, they could avoid any chance of him ever being paroled.

“Another reason for a federal prosecution is that if there might be others involved, a federal case might provide a vehicle for getting that information, whereas the state may not have an interest or the wherewithal to investigate a conspiracy that involves people in several states.”

Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, said federal charges also “really do help prevent other violent activity. It serves as a deterrent for those who might want to follow in their footsteps.”

A Sedgwick County jury found Roeder guilty of first-degree murder on Jan. 29. Roeder faces life in prison when sentenced on March 9, and prosecutors said they would request that he not be eligible for parole for 50 years.

But FACE offers a life sentence with no chance for parole.

In addition to possible FACE charges, federal investigators said they were looking into whether anyone else played a role in the crime, which could result in other federal charges.

What federal authorities heard at the trial was Roeder telling jurors that he began thinking about killing Tiller as far back as 1993, when Rachelle “Shelley” Shannon shot Tiller in both arms as he was leaving his clinic. During cross-examination by Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston, Roeder said he sought out people who shared his belief that killing abortion doctors was an act of justifiable homicide.

Roeder testified that he visited Shannon in prison in Topeka and that he admired her for shooting Tiller. He also said he and Shannon applauded others who had been involved in abortion-related violence.

“And these individuals were people you might have counted among your friends?” Foulston asked.

“Yes,” Roeder replied.

Abortion-rights advocates in the courtroom were on the edge of their seats as Roeder spoke.

“His testimony was chilling, and the response of the extremists attending the trial was chilling,” Saporta said. “Shelley Shannon is a martyr and hero of this group of extremists who believe in justifiable homicide.”

Last week, Shannon issued a statement from prison.

“Abortionists are killed because they are serial murderers of innocent children who must be stopped, and they will continue to be stopped, even though Scott didn’t get a fair trial,” Shannon wrote in an e-mail to Iowa anti-abortion activist Dave Leach. “May God bless Scott for his faithfulness and brave actions and stand.”

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