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Tiller trial begins with churchgoers’ testimony

The man accused of murdering Kansas abortion provider George Tiller seemed to have been stalking him for months, and he had even been confronted at Tiller’s church by a member of the congregation months before the physician was killed in the church’s vestibule.

In the first day of testimony in the murder trial of antiabortion activist Scott Roeder, church member Paul Ryding told a Sedgwick County jury that he approached Roeder in the Wichita church about six months before Tiller was killed because he did not recognize Roeder and became suspicious when he did not participate in services.

Ryding, a large-animal veterinarian, was also the first person to give first aid to Tiller, who was shot once above his right brow May 31.

During the televised court proceedings, witnesses described a chaotic scene that had unfolded at Reformation Lutheran Church, turning what Sedgwick County Dist. Atty. Nola Foulston described as “a nice, smiley sunny day” into a horror.

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Sunday services were just getting started when a shot rang out. Tiller fell, and his assailant fled to a blue Taurus with a license plate registered to Roeder that had been parked facing out, Foulston said.

Kathy Wegner, a church youth director who made the first call to 911, said she saw a flash and heard a sound like a balloon popping.

“Then I saw Dr. Tiller just fall flat on his back,” she testified, growing tearful. “And I saw an assailant with his hand out, and he still had the gun in his hand.”

In poignant testimony that followed the display of graphic photographs of Tiller lying in a pool of blood, Ryding spoke of trying to remove blood from Tiller’s mouth with his own mouth to clear an airway.

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“I was aware that this wasn’t gonna work,” he said, “but I could not do nothing.”

Roeder, 51, is charged with first-degree premeditated murder, and if convicted faces life in prison. He has also been charged with two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly threatening with a gun two men who followed him out of the church.

His trial began on the 37th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision that legalized abortion.

Roeder has admitted in interviews with reporters and in court documents that he killed Tiller, but he has pleaded not guilty and maintained that he shot the physician to save the unborn. Tiller, 67, was one of a handful of doctors in the U.S. who performed late-term abortions.

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Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert has refused to allow Roeder to argue that he killed Tiller out of necessity, but has not ruled out the possibility that he will allow Roeder’s attorneys to make a case for voluntary manslaughter. That decision has infuriated abortion rights groups and has pleased many abortion foes.

Before the jury was brought into the courtroom, prosecutor Anne Swegle asked the judge to reconsider that decision.

“Our concern is that we have a situation where we have a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” Swegle said. In giving the defense the ability to claim Tiller was murdered out of necessity, she said, “you have thrown the wolf out, and it’s crawling back into the court under the guise of voluntary manslaughter.”

Kansas law allows a voluntary manslaughter defense in cases in which a defendant uses deadly force because he believed -- even unreasonably -- there was an imminent threat of bodily harm.

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In denying the motion again, Judge Wilbert said, “I will vigilantly watch the evidence and try to the best of my ability [to make sure] that the necessity defense doesn’t come in the back door or side door.”

A tense exchange occurred late in the day during Ryding’s testimony, when Roeder’s defense attorney, public defender Mark Rudy, thought he heard Ryding say that he was vigilant about strangers in church because they might have an agenda about abortion.

“Were your suspicions related to abortion?” asked Rudy, as the prosecutor vigorously objected. Wilbert has promised he will not allow the trial to focus on abortion.

As it turned out when the court reporter read back the testimony, Ryding had said Roeder’s agenda “wasn’t one of worship.”

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Foulston told jurors that Roeder, who lives in Merriam, Kan., nearly 200 miles from Wichita, had stayed at two Wichita hotels on two consecutive Saturdays, including the night before Tiller was killed.

Just after the killing, authorities received a phone call from Roeder’s brother David, concerned that his own handprints might be on the gun.

David Roeder said his brother had come to his home near Topeka to practice shooting his new gun the day before Tiller was slain, Foulston said. Law enforcement officers, she said, combed the property and found a number of casings that were matched to the single casing found next to Tiller’s body. The gun has never been found.

Jeanne Tiller, the slain physician’s wife of 45 years, was in the courtroom with her three daughters and son and looked physically ill during some testimony. She has closed his clinic for good.

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Several antiabortion activists were also in the courtroom. Among them was Regina Dinwiddie of Kansas City, Kan., who had attempted to raise money for Roeder’s defense by putting up items for sale on EBay, including art Roeder made while in prison. The online auction house pulled the items.

Testimony is scheduled to resume Monday.

robin.abcarian@latimes.com


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