Kan. court skeptical of defense in Tiller shooting

Published on NewsOK Modified: January 29, 2014 at 2:52 pm •  Published: January 29, 2014

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Justices on Kansas' highest court expressed skepticism Wednesday that a man convicted of first-degree murder in the shooting of a Wichita abortion provider should get a new trial because he sincerely believed he was saving the lives of unborn children.

All seven Supreme Court justices had pointed questions for the attorney representing Scott Roeder, who is serving at least 50 years in prison for killing Dr. George Tiller in May 2009. Roeder gunned down Tiller in the foyer of the doctor's church where he was serving as an usher just as a Sunday service was starting.

Rachel Pickering, an appellate defender, argued that Roeder should get a new trial because jurors weren't allowed to consider whether they could convict him of voluntary manslaughter, rather than first-degree murder. The lesser crime covers killings that occur when people have a sincere but unreasonable belief that harm to themselves or others is imminent and justifies deadly force.

Tiller was among a few U.S. physicians known to perform late-term abortions. Roeder had strong anti-abortion beliefs, equating Tiller's procedures with murder. Pickering noted Roeder also believed the doctor was violating Kansas law, though Tiller had been acquitted of misdemeanor state charges of violating late-term abortion restrictions weeks earlier.

"We're talking about his view that this doctor is performing illegal abortions resulting in the deaths of others," Pickering told the court.

During Roeder's trial, Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert allowed the confessed killer to testify to his beliefs but ultimately refused to let the jury consider the lesser charge after hearing all the trial evidence. The defense's tactic outraged Tiller's colleagues and abortion-rights advocates nationwide, who feared it gave a more-than-tacit approval to further acts of violence.

Roeder raised multiple issues in his appeal, but the Supreme Court's hearing focused mainly on whether jurors should have been allowed to consider the lesser charge. The justices did not say when they would rule.

The justices questioned Pickering for more than an hour, twice the amount of time set aside for her arguments. In contrast, Assistant Sedgwick County District Attorney Boyd Isherwood didn't use his full half-hour in defending Roeder's first-degree murder conviction and "Hard 50" sentence.