WICHITA, Kan. – Jurors swiftly convicted an abortion opponent of murder Friday for shooting to death one of the only doctors to offer late-term abortions in the U.S., a killing the gunman claimed was justified to save the lives of unborn children.
The jury deliberated for just 37 minutes before finding Scott Roeder, 51, guilty of premeditated, first-degree murder for putting a gun to the forehead of Dr. George Tiller on May 31 and pulling the trigger.
Defense attorney Mark Rudy described his case as helpless and hopeless.
"I've never seen anyone lay himself out as much as Mr. Roeder did," Rudy said after the verdict, referring to his client's confessions.
Roeder faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years when he is sentenced March 9. Prosecutor Nola Foulston said she would pursue a so-called "Hard 50" sentence, which would require Roeder to serve at least 50 years before he can be considered for parole.
Tiller's widow, Jeanne, and the rest of the family quickly exited the courtroom after the verdict. In a statement, Jeanne Tiller said "once again, a Sedgwick County jury has reached a just verdict."
The family said it wanted Tiller to 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."
Roeder had confessed publicly before the trial and admitted again on the witness stand that he shot Tiller in the foyer of the Wichita church where the doctor was serving as an usher. He testified he felt the lives of unborn children were in "immediate danger" because of Tiller.
During closing arguments earlier Friday, Rudy urged the jury to reject the murder charge, saying, "no one should be convicted based on his convictions."
Rudy mentioned leaders who stood up for their beliefs, including civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. They were "celebrated individuals (who) stood up and made the world a better place."
"They leave their marks based on their words and deeds," Rudy said.
But prosecutor Kim Parker said Roeder is "simply guilty of the crime he has been charged with."
Prosecutor Ann Swegle told jurors to use their "common sense" when deliberating and find Roeder guilty based not only on the state's case but also on Roeder's own testimony in which he described how he killed Tiller in a "planned assassination."
"There could be no other verdict in this case," she said.
Roeder also was convicted of aggravated assault for pointing a gun at two ushers at Tiller's church after the shooting. Wearing a dark suit with a red tie, he sat straightforward and expressionless as the verdict was read, moving his head toward the judge and to the jury as each juror confirmed his or her decision.
Roeder's attorneys were hoping to get a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter for Roeder, a defense that would have required them to show that Roeder had an unreasonable but honest belief that deadly force was justified.
Tiller's Wichita clinic was the focus of many protests and had been under investigation by a former state district attorney who accused the doctor of skirting Kansas' late-term abortion laws requiring a second opinion from a physician who is not affiliated to the one performing the abortion.
Kansas law says abortions on viable fetuses after the 21st week of pregnancy are allowed only if a woman or girl's life is in danger, or if she faces a "substantial and irreversible impairment" of a major bodily function. Courts have interpreted a major bodily function to include mental health.
Roeder was the sole defense witness after the judge barred testimony from two state prosecutors whom the defense subpoenaed in a bid to show Roeder believed Tiller was performing unlawful abortions and was frustrated charges against the doctor had been dismissed in one case. Jurors in the other case acquitted the doctor.
Roeder testified Thursday that he considered elaborate schemes to stop the doctor, including chopping off his hands, crashing a car into him or sneaking into his home to kill him. Roeder said he went to Reformation Lutheran Church on three other occasions to kill Tiller: once the evening before and once the week before Tiller was shot, and once in 2008, but Tiller was not at the church on those occasions.
But in the end, Roeder told jurors, the easiest way was to walk into Tiller's church, put a gun to the doctor's forehead and pull the trigger.
"Those children were in immediate danger if someone did not stop George Tiller," Roeder told jurors.
But after hearing Roeder testify, District Judge Warren Wilbert ruled that his lawyers failed to show that Tiller posed an imminent threat and the jury could not consider a manslaughter verdict.
Prosecutors were careful during the first few days of testimony to avoid the subject of abortion and to focus on the specifics of the shooting. Wilbert said he did not want the trial to become a debate on abortion, but he did allow Roeder to discuss his views on the subject because his attorneys said they were integral to their case.