In a trial that never became the referendum on abortion that some abortion foes wanted, Scott Roeder, a 51-year-old airport shuttle driver, was convicted Friday of murdering George Tiller, one the nation's few physicians who performed late-term abortions.
FOR THE RECORD:
George Tiller trial: An article in Saturday's Section A about the murder conviction of Scott Roeder in the death of Dr. George Tiller said Tiller was the eighth abortion provider since 1993 to be killed by antiabortion extremists. He was the fourth doctor and the eighth person. —
When he was slain in the vestibule of his church last May 31, Tiller became the fourth doctor since 1993 to be killed by antiabortion extremists. In June, his family announced that his clinic would close permanently.
The jury of seven men and five women deliberated for only 37 minutes before finding Roeder guilty of premeditated murder. He faces life in prison. Sentencing is set for March 9.
Roeder, who testified Thursday that he had methodically stalked and killed Tiller, 67, to stop him from performing abortions, reacted little to a verdict his attorneys said he expected. His face flushed slightly, but he did not move.
Whether Roeder shot Tiller at point-blank range in the forehead was never at issue; Roeder had admitted it to reporters, in court filings and finally in calm, measured tones to a jury on Thursday. "If someone did not stop him," said Roeder, "these babies were going to continue to die."
The tall, balding defendant said he felt relief after the killing. In the 3 1/2 hours after the killing, he drove toward Kansas City, he said, stopping to stash his gun in a rural dirt pile, change his shirt and eat a pizza.
Advocates for abortion rights praised the verdict.
"We now strongly urge the U.S. Department of Justice to follow through on its announcement to investigate Dr. Tiller's murder to determine whether Roeder planned the shooting with anyone else," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights.
The Justice Department has confirmed it is investigating Roeder, who it alleges was caught tampering with the locks of an abortion clinic in Kansas City the day before he shot Tiller.
Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, urged abortion foes to tone down their "inflammatory rhetoric and tactics that inspire this kind of violent action from the most extreme factions of the anti-choice movement."
Some here, however, had words of support for the defendant.
"I don't condone what Scott Roeder did, but I cannot condemn the consistency of his logic," said Randall Terry, a founder of antiabortion group Operation Rescue. "George Tiller killed 60,000 innocent human beings in barbaric ways, and Scott felt the way to protect more babies from a grisly death was to kill Tiller."
Jan Holman, an elderly antiabortion activist, drove from Iowa for the trial. She came in a truck covered with photographs of aborted fetuses. "I support Scott Roeder," she said. "I guess you might say he's my hero."
After the shooting, mainstream antiabortion groups denounced the killing.
Roeder hoped to claim the killing was justifiable homicide, based on his belief that abortion is murder. Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert ruled that that defense was not legal, but he initially left open the possibility that he would allow the jury to consider a voluntary-manslaughter defense.
But Wilbert ruled Thursday, after the defense concluded its case, that the jury could consider only whether Roeder had committed premeditated first-degree murder, because the defendant's actions did not meet the state's criteria for the lesser crime.
That decision in effect ended Roeder's defense, said one of his public defenders, Mark Rudy. In a brief closing argument, Rudy tried to compare Roeder to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and by inference Rosa Parks -- people whose acts of civil disobedience had righted social wrongs.
Roeder also was convicted on two counts of aggravated assault for threatening to shoot Keith Martin and Gary Hoepner as he fled Tiller's Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita.
Dr. Warren Hern of Boulder, Colo., a friend of Tiller's who is one of the few U.S. physicians who continue to perform late-term abortions, said Friday he was furious that the judge ever considered allowing the defense to raise the idea of voluntary manslaughter.
"The judge gave this assassin a national platform for his inflammatory propaganda," he said. "How many more abortion doctors will have to be assassinated before the American people understand that this is a violent terrorist movement?"
Advocates on both sides of the abortion divide found themselves squeezed uncomfortably together on the hard courtroom benches during the trial.
One spectator was Michael Bray, who spent nearly five years in prison for bombings in the 1980s related to his antiabortion views. He said he hoped Roeder would eventually be released and didn't think he'd kill again.
"There are bombers who have been released from jail who haven't bombed again," he said with a wide grin. "There is precedent."
The conviction brings a kind of closure to the city of Wichita, which became a center of the antiabortion movement in the late 1980s and 1990s because of Tiller's presence.
In 1993, antiabortion activist Rachelle Shannon shot Tiller in both arms. Roeder testified that he had befriended Shannon, who is in prison in Kansas for firebombing abortion clinics. "I admired her," he said.
Many of Tiller's patients were women who discovered late in pregnancy that their fetuses were severely compromised by genetic anomalies.
In a statement Friday, Tiller's family thanked the jury, police and prosecutors:
"At this time we hope that George can be remembered for his legacy of service to women, the help he provided for those who needed it, and the love and happiness he provided us as a husband, father and grandfather."