WICHITA, Kan. — An anti-abortion zealot convicted of murdering a prominent Kansas abortion doctor was sentenced Thursday to life in prison and won't be eligible for parole for 50 years -- the maximum allowed by law.
Scott Roeder, 52, faced a mandatory life prison term for gunning down Dr. George Tiller in the back of Tiller's Wichita church last May. Tiller was one of the few U.S. doctors who performed late-term abortions.
Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert could have made the Roeder eligible for parole after 25 or 50 years, but gave him the harsher sentence because he said the evidence showed Roeder stalked Tiller before killing him.
Wilbert also sentenced Roeder to serve an additional year in prison on each of two counts of aggravated assault for threatening two church ushers in the melee. That means -- allowing for possible time off those sentences for good behavior -- Roeder won't be eligible for parole for 51 years and eight months.
During his trial, Roeder testified that he killed Tiller in a bid to save unborn children.
‘Wichita is a far safer place’
In a rambling statement in court Thursday, Roeder blamed Tiller's death primarily on the state for not outlawing abortion.
"I stopped him so he could not dismember another innocent baby. Wichita is a far safer place for unborn babies without George Tiller," Roeder said.
Roeder also took the opportunity to describe abortion procedures in detail, which he was previously forbidden from doing during the trial. Abortion is legal in Kansas, and prosecutors were careful not turn the trial into a referendum on abortion.
Roeder interrupted Wilbert several times as the judge discussed the sentence from the bench.
When Wilbert read from a previous court decision saying that allowing vigilantism would promote chaos, Roeder said, "Baby murder is anarchy and chaos."
As he being led away in handcuffs after the sentencing, Roeder shouted, "Blood of innocent babies on your hands."
He read a long statement that included details of abortion procedures, but 40 minutes into his remarks, Wilbert stopped Roeder as he was about to publicly attack District Attorney Nola Foulston.
‘This is domestic terrorism’
Earlier Thursday, Tiller's attorney, Lee Thompson, asked Wilbert to give Roeder the harshest sentence possible, saying anything less would encourage other anti-abortion fanatics to follow in Roeder's 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."
Thompson described 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, 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."
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.
No late-term procedures
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.
"He went ahead and laid down his life to save unborn children and to me that is the definition of a hero — he gave up his life to save someone else," said Rev. Don Spitz, of Chesapeake, Va., who runs the Army of God Web site supporting violence against abortion providers.
In Kansas, Tiller's killing has practically erased late-term procedures and forced women to Albuquerque, N.M., and Boulder, Colo., among other places, to have them.
Just three clinics in the state — all located in or near the Kansas City metro area — offer limited abortion services for women up to their 21st week of pregnancy.
"People were coming from all over the world to have abortions in Kansas," said Kari Ann Rinker, a lobbyist for the National Organization for Women's Kansas chapter. "Now they don't come here because Dr. Tiller has been killed."
'A devastating loss'
Beyond the state, however, abortion rights advocates say doctors are increasingly offering the procedure to ensure women have access.
"Dr. Tiller's death was a devastating loss to the provider community and his family, but he was so admired and respected that his death has inspired medical students and providers to recommit themselves to providing women with the abortion care that they need," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation.
Among them is Megan Evans, a third-year medical student at George Washington University who said she hopes to include abortion services as part of a larger obstetrics and gynecology practice.
"After he was killed, for me it assured me this was the right field to go into," she said.
In the wake of Tiller's murder, Dr. Curtis Boyd of Albuquerque decided to provide third-trimester abortions on a case-by-case basis and hired two physicians who had worked at Tiller's clinic.
Wichita-based Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group that followed Boyd's announcement by declaring it would open a satellite operation in Albuquerque, contends its movement has been winning for the past 15 years as abortion clinics close as a result of legislative efforts coupled with political and social pressures.
Saporta contends there are now more doctors across the nation providing late abortions than there were before Tiller was killed, but she refuses to say how many or identify them for fear of making them instant targets.
Kansas law permits an abortion on a viable fetus after the 21st week of pregnancy to save a mother's life or to prevent "substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function."
State lawmakers who oppose abortion want to further restrict the law. They passed a bill that would require doctors' reports to the state include the exact medical diagnosis justifying a late-term abortion. It also would allow a doctor to be sued if the mother or her family had evidence that a late-term abortion violated Kansas law. But the Republican-controlled Legislature doesn't yet have the two-thirds majorities it needs to override a potential veto by Democratic Gov. Mark Parkinson, an abortion rights supporter.
"There's no reason not to do the right thing just because Tiller's clinic is closed," said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of Kansans for Life. "The possibility exists that someone else could come into this state and run his business in the same way."
The state Department of Health and Environment reported last week that the number of late-term abortions of viable fetuses dropped dramatically last year, from 192 in 2008 to 67 in 2009. The total number of abortions declined 11 percent, from about 10,600 in 2008 to about 9,500 in 2009.
Abortion opponents argue that decline can be linked to an increase in crisis pregnancy centers and a new law requiring doctors to give women the option of seeing an ultrasound of their fetus before an abortion.
But Rinker, the NOW lobbyist, said Roeder accomplished what the state's conservative lawmakers could not.
"We need more abortion clinics," she said. "We need more physicians who aren't afraid to practice abortion procedures because of fear of legal repercussions."
Associated Press writer John Hanna in Topeka contributed to this report. Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.