Image: Scott Roeder
Jeff Tuttle  /  The Wichita Eagle/Pool via AP fi
Scott Roeder, convicted of murdering prominent Kansas abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, at his trial on Jan. 28, 2010, in Wichita, Kan. Roeder testified that he killed Tiller in the foyer of Tiller's Wichita church on May 31.
updated 4/1/2010 11:32:09 AM ET 2010-04-01T15:32:09

A zealot who gunned down one of the few U.S. doctors who provided late-term abortions appeared in court Thursday to be sentenced and was expected to speak again about his beliefs.

Scott Roeder, 52, faces a mandatory life prison sentence for the murder of Dr. George Tiller last May.

Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert dismissed a request from Roeder for a new trial and rejected a challenge by his attorneys to a state law that would allow Roeder to be sentenced to a "Hard 50" sentence, or life in prison with no eligibility for parole in 50 years.

Roeder has admitted he shot and killed Tiller last May in the foyer of the Wichita church where Tiller was serving as an usher. Roeder was expected to testify again Thursday and speak about his beliefs.

Character witnesses ready
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.

Lee Thompson, an attorney for the Tiller family, declined to discuss any plans for statements to the court during Thursday's 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.

Wilbert will decide whether Roeder, of Kansas City, Mo., must serve 25 years or 50 years before being eligible for parole.

Prosecutors seeking the harsher sentence must show an aggravating circumstance, such as whether Roeder stalked his victim before killing him. 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.

Difficulties ahead
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.

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