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Lawyers avoid ‘a-word’ in abortion slaying trial

On the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, prosecutors who charged a man with killing a late-term abortion provider get through the first day of testimony without mentioning the word abortion in front of jurors.
Defendant Scott Roeder during a prior hearing inside a Sedgwick County District Courtroom in Wichita, Kan.
Defendant Scott Roeder during a prior hearing inside a Sedgwick County District Courtroom in Wichita, Kan. Travis Heying / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

On the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, prosecutors who charged a man with killing one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers managed to get through the first day of testimony without mentioning the word abortion in front of jurors.

They instead began presenting a murder case focused instead on emotional eyewitness testimony, recordings of frantic 911 calls and photos of Dr. George Tiller's body lying in a pool of blood in his church foyer.

DNA evidence linking Tiller to confessed killer Scott Roeder, forensic analyses of bullet casings and video of Roeder at local hotels are expected to follow in prosecutors' case — but no mention of abortion, at least for as long as they can avoid it.

Still, what lawyers simply called the "a-word" when the jury was not present was the most contentious issue in court Friday. And its absence from the transcript could change when Roeder's defense team has a chance to try to argue he believed the killing was justified to save unborn children.

District Attorney Nola Foulston's opening statement methodically outlined the events prosecutors hope will convince jurors to return a premeditated, first-degree murder verdict, rather than a lesser voluntary manslaughter conviction expected to be sought by the defense.

Roeder's attorneys are keeping their defense strategy under wraps until the last possible minute, deferring their opening statement until they are ready put on their entire case.

At one point Friday, District Judge Warren Wilbert stopped defense attorney Mark Rudy from using the word abortion when cross-examining a witness who had not first used it himself.

If the witness brings it up "that's fair game, and you can explore it," Wilbert said.

Roeder's 'agenda'
Paul Ryding testified he had an "awkward conversation" with Roeder when Roeder came to church services six months before the shooting. Ryding said he had a feeling Roeder had "an agenda," without explaining what he thought that might be.

But Ryding steadfastly skirted the word abortion when pressed — leaving defense attorney Mark Rudy so plainly frustrated that he asked Ryding whether he had previously discussed his testimony with any officials other than detectives.

Ryding responded that he had not, but later acknowledged to Foulston, while on the stand, that he had talked to prosecutors to prepare his testimony.

Wilbert has repeatedly said the trial will not turn into a battle over abortion. But he galvanized both sides of the debate when he refused to bar the defense from trying for a conviction on the lesser charge by arguing Roeder believed Tiller's killing would save unborn children.

In Kansas, voluntary manslaughter is defined as "an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force."

The judge has said he will rule at the time the defense presents its evidence about how much jurors will be allowed to hear, telling attorneys he will limit it to Roeder's beliefs at the time of the killing.

The 51-year-old Kansas City, Mo., man faces a life sentence if convicted of first-degree murder. Under state sentencing guidelines, a conviction for voluntary manslaughter for someone with little criminal history would bring a sentence closer to five years.

Earlier Friday, Wilbert denied a defense request to move the trial out of Wichita, even though all jurors had seen media coverage of the case. Roeder has publicly confessed to shooting Tiller, telling The Associated Press in November that he did so to protect unborn children. The judge also again rejected prosecutors' request to block the voluntary manslaughter defense.

'Time just stopped'
In other testimony, church member Kathy Wegner testified she saw Tiller enter the fellowship hall and then heard a sound like a balloon popping. She saw a flash and watched Tiller "just fall flat on his back." Wegner said the gunman ran out of the church, and another usher ran after him. Prosecutors also played a recording of the 911 call placed by Wegner.

"I felt like time just stopped," Wegner said.

Photos of Tiller's body after he was shot showed the doctor lying on his side, with much of his face obscured by blood. A large puddle of blood had pooled under his head.

Tiller's wife, Jeanne, placed her head in her hands and covered her eyes as a police officer testified about the photographs. Other family members also turned away; one of Tiller's daughters cried quietly during some testimony.

A Roeder supporter seated in the public gallery grinned widely and swayed visibly in her seat as the gruesome photos were shown — leading a sheriff's deputy to quietly issue her a stern warning.

Tiller, whose Wichita clinic closed after his death, championed abortion rights even after being shot in both arms by an activist in 1993. The clinic, heavily fortified after a bombing in 1986, was the target of both peaceful and violent protests.

In 1991, a 45-day "Summer of Mercy" campaign organized by Operation Rescue drew thousands of anti-abortion protesters to Wichita for demonstrations and saw mass arrests.

In more recent years, anti-abortion activists had focused their attacks against Tiller within the legal system and political arena. Thousands of abortion opponents signed petitions forcing Sedgwick County to convene grand juries in 2006 and 2008 to investigate him, but he was never indicted.