WICHITA, Kan. — Those living on the virulent edge of the anti-abortion movement pinned their hopes on Scott Roeder.
Testifying in his own defense, a remorseless and resolute Roeder insisted he had committed a justified act for the defense of unborn children by killing Dr. George Tiller, one of the country's few physicians to offer late-term abortions. It was a bold legal strategy that, if successful, had the potential to radically alter the debate over abortion by reducing the price for committing such an act of violence.
When it failed, those who share Roeder's passionate, militant belief against abortion were outraged: One said they are getting tired of being treated as a "piece of dirt" unable to express the reasons for such acts in court. So while relieved at the outcome, abortion-rights advocates worry a verdict that should be a deterrent will instead further embolden those prone to violence.
"Many of those who came here in his support will be key to making (Roeder) a martyr for their cause — all in furtherance of advocating deadly violence," said Kathy Spillar, executive vice president of the Feminist Majority Foundation.
Roeder faces a minimum sentence of life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after 25 years in prison when he's sentenced March 9, although prosecutors will ask the judge to require the 51-year-old Kansas City, Mo., man to serve at least 50 years behind bars before he is eligible for parole. His attorneys plan to appeal, arguing jurors should have been allowed to consider the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, requiring proof that Roeder had an unreasonable but honest belief that deadly force was justified.
'Everybody is pretty angry'
The Rev. Donald Spitz, of Chesapeake, Va., who runs the Army of God Web site supporting violence against abortion providers, said the rejection of that argument has upset those who view Roeder as a hero.
"I know there is not a lot of good feeling out there — everybody is pretty angry," he said.
Spitz was the spiritual adviser to Paul Hill and was with him at his 2003 execution for the killing of a Florida abortion provider and a clinic escort in 1994, an event that led to a lull in violence at abortion clinics. While saying he knows nothing of impending plans by others against abortion doctors, Spitz scoffed at suggestions that Roeder's conviction will have a similar effect.
"Times change," Spitz said. "People are not as passive as they have been. They are more assertive."
Such comments terrify abortion-rights advocates, who say they'll continue to press the Obama administration for deeper protections, such as buffer zones around clinics, to protect doctors against others who might follow in Roeder's steps. Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, said her group had noticed a rise in anti-abortion violence over the past year.
"We used to have members report incidents once a month — now it's every day," Saporta said. "Every time, we forward it on to Justice Department task force, and they report it to FBI so nothing slips through the cracks."
Network of extremists
Others are demanding a federal investigation and prosecution of what they claim is a network of extremists, citing Roeder's testimony that he talked to others about justifiable homicide of abortion doctors.
"To see each murder as an isolated attack by one individual misses the fact there are these connections," said Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights. "It's of extreme concern that some anti-choice fanatics will want to see themselves martyred in similar ways. It is a frightening possibility there will be copy cats."
Spitz said he has twice been subpoenaed to testify before grand juries in the past and FBI agents have been to his house several times. He disavows the existence of any organized conspiracy.
"We don't have a group," he said. "It is a belief system."
At least one Justice Department official attended the trial, along with agents from the FBI. Justice officials in Washington declined to comment Friday. But in the wake of Tiller's death, the Justice Department increased security around women's health facilities and opened an investigation to try to determine if Roeder had accomplices.
Among the other spectators at the trial was Randall Terry, the founder of Operation Rescue, which organized the 1991 "Summer of Mercy" protests that included attempts to block Tiller's Wichita clinic and led to more than 2,700 arrests. As the jury was deliberating in Wichita, Terry said he believed that no matter the outcome of Roeder's trial, more violence was inevitable.
"The blood of these babies slain by Tiller is crying for vengeance," he said.
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