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Suspect in Kan. abortion killing faces hearing

Abortion Shooting
Scott Roeder makes his first court appearance via a video link from the Sedgwick County Jail in Wichita, Kan., on June 2.Jaime Oppenheimer / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The man accused of killing one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers will get his first look this week at the evidence against him, even as he has called the shooting of Dr. George Tiller justified.

Scott Roeder, 51, is charged with one count of first-degree murder in Tiller's death and two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly threatening two ushers who tried to stop him during the May 31 melee in the foyer of the doctor's church.

Unless the defense waives the preliminary hearing set for Tuesday, prosecutors must convince a judge that they have enough evidence to merit a trial. Roeder would then enter a plea.

Tiller, 67, had been the target of relentless protests for most of the 36 years that he performed abortions at his Wichita clinic, where he practiced as one of the nation's few providers of late-term abortions. He was shot in both arms by an anti-abortion activist in 1993, and his family said the doctor had been repeatedly threatened over the years.

Prosecutors have largely refused to discuss the case and Roeder's comments to the press. Defense attorneys have not returned calls to The Associated Press seeking comment, and Roeder has declined to say what plea he plans to enter.

Difficult case for defense attorneys
Roeder has had plenty else to say, however. With their client itching to talk — and with prosecutors apparently having several witnesses to the shooting — defense attorneys face a difficult case.

Among Roeder's potential defenses is a diminished mental competency. His brother, David, has said Roeder suffered from mental illness at various times in his life. Roeder denied that is mentally ill now, but has acknowledged that he was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his late teens. He blames that on drug use at the time and said he has been clean for more than 20 years.

"Drugs are not a problem. My mental illness came from the use of drugs," Roeder told The Associated Press. "When I quit, I haven't had any problems."

But legal observers say Roeder's defense attorneys can raise the question regardless.

"Sometimes the person is the last to know, you know what I mean? If you are truly incompetent that is one of the things you might not understand," said retired Shawnee County District Judge Terry Bullock. "So if there is any question about that, the lawyer should raise that issue and they will have him examined and a decision will be made about that before trial."

Roeder, in rambling phone and jailhouse interviews with the AP since his arrest, has said a "war has been declared upon the unborn," who must be defended.

Asked whether he hoped Tiller's death would inspire others to shoot abortion providers, Roeder replied that everyone has to make their own decisions. But he said he would be pleased if others took action to stop abortion by any means necessary.

"Violence is not wrong in all situations, so if it takes that — then if it is done righteously — then, if it's done, it is OK," Roeder said.

Not likely to get traction
That argument is not likely to get much, if any, traction in the courtroom.

"Justifiable homicide typically means self-defense — you are defending yourself, your home, your wife or somebody like that," Bullock said. "It is not that you have a good motive."

In several interviews with The AP, Roeder has stopped just short of confessing to Tiller's shooting. While talking at length about the notion of justifiable homicide against abortion providers, he has refused to discuss any facts of the case.

Asked if he thinks Tiller's shooting was justified, Roeder replied, "Well, yeah. The thing is, how could it not be? Again, you know, he was in the business, and had been for many years, of taking the lives of unborn children. So if the lives of born children are worthy of protection, why would not the lives of unborn children be worthy of protection? That is really what it comes down to."

If convicted of first-degree murder, Roeder faces life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years.

A week after his arrest, Roeder told The AP that "I know there are many other similar events planned around the country as long as abortion remains legal." As the court case proceeds, authorities are still investigating whether he had accomplices.

Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar said the agency is probing the potential for other violations of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act or other federal statutes. He noted that Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered increase protection for abortion providers.