WICHITA, Kansas - The murder of one of the few U.S. doctors who performed late-term abortions was "a gutless act of terror" and was as destructive as "an earthquake" for women seeking such medical services, the doctor's friend and attorney said Thursday.
Attorney Lee Thompson asked District Judge Warren Wilbert to give the harshest possible sentence to anti-abortion zealot Scott Roeder, who admitted he gunned down Tiller in the back of Tiller's Wichita church last May because he felt doing so would protect unborn children.
Roeder was facing a mandatory life prison term, although Wilbert had to decide whether to make him eligible for parole after 25 or 50 years. The 52-year-old Kansas City, Mo., resident was expected to be the last person to speak at the hearing and was expected to discuss his beliefs.
Thompson described his friend Tiller as a devoted husband, father and grandfather and a strong believer in women's rights. He said his office still receives calls from women seeking medical services. As he spoke about Tiller as a devoted grandfather, Tiller's widow, Jeanne, cried. Roeder at times looked away, yawned and took a drink of water.
"The impact of his death on women throughout the world is like an earthquake," Thompson said. "They ask, where can I go? What will I do?' I have to say, 'I'm sorry, I can't tell you.' That's the impact of this crime."
Thompson said if Roeder didn't receive the harshest sentence, it would invite other anti-abortion fanatics to follow in his footsteps.
"It will happen again and again," Thompson said. "This is domestic terrorism. This act will be repeated by this person if he ever sees the light of day again."
Prosecutors seeking the harsher sentence must show an aggravating circumstance, such as whether Roeder stalked his victim before killing him. Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston argued that the longer sentence was warranted because Roeder stalked Tiller for years, and he put others at the church in danger when he shot the doctor and when others chased him afterward.
Roeder testified in January that he had previously taken a gun into the doctor's church and had checked out the gated subdivision where Tiller lived and the clinic where he practiced.
Foulston said the murder hurt Tiller's church and "wounded the country." Thompson said Roeder targeted Tiller in a "hate crime" because Tiller provided abortion services.
Security was tight for the hearing. Law enforcement officers had explosive-detecting dogs sniffing reporters' equipment before the hearing. Four Sedgwick County sheriff's deputies were on duty outside the courtroom Thursday, along with several agents from both the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
Several of Roeder's friends and fellow anti-abortion activists have said Roeder asked them to testify as character witnesses -- although it's up to the judge to decide how much, if any, such testimony he will hear.
Although he could spend the rest of his life in prison, Roeder may have gotten what he wanted all along: In the months since Tiller's death and his clinic was closed, it has been markedly more difficult to get an abortion in Kansas.
The state was left with no facility where women can have the late-term procedure. Just three clinics in the state -- all located in or near the Kansas City area -- offer limited abortion services for women up to their 21st week of pregnancy.
An early vow by one of Tiller's contemporaries to fill the gap hasn't materialized, and state lawmakers are moving to enact tough new rules to dissuade other doctors from taking Tiller's place.
But outside Kansas, abortion-rights supporters say there's been a surge in late-term abortion practices by doctors emboldened to pick up where Tiller left off.
"What he really did was murder a doctor in church, and the effect on abortion is negligible," said Dr. LeRoy Carhart, a Nebraska doctor who worked part-time for Tiller and said he hasn't given up on the idea of opening a practice in Kansas where late-term abortions would be performed.