Jurors hearing the case of a man charged with killing prominent abortion provider Dr. George Tiller heard the word abortion for the first time Monday, when an usher testified about seeing protesters at the church the doctor had attended.
District Attorney Nola Foulston first said the word abortion during the second day of testimony in the trial of Scott Roeder when she asked usher Keith Martin about numerous protests at Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, where Tiller was shot to death on May 31. Prosecutors previously had avoided using the word abortion in front of jurors, trying to focus on the facts — a doctor gunned down in his church — rather than allow the trial to become a debate over abortion.
Roeder, 51, has publicly admitted he killed Tiller but has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and aggravated assault in the case. The Kansas City, Missouri, man said in a court filing that the trial would be a "charade" if he were not allowed to argue that the killing was necessary to save "preborn babies" from abortion.
Sat by himself
Martin testified Monday Roeder at the church a half dozen times before the shooting. Unlike other churchgoers, Scott Roeder always brought his own Bible and sat by himself, Martin said.
He also testified that protests had made church members suspicious of newcomers even before the shooting.
Foulston asked him if the protests appeared to be "involving the position on abortion."
Martin said they seemed to be.
He related at least five instances since 1991 in which visitors had disrupted the service. At times visitors had stood up in the congregation and started shouting. Some even tried to take over the microphone, Martin said, and at one time someone tried to push a pianist off the stool.
Still, Martin said, he didn't closely watch Roeder the day Tiller was shot because he had seen Roeder before at services without incident.
Kristin Neitzel, a pastor at the church, later testified that Roeder attended a special Saturday service the evening before the shooting and that some church members had become suspicious of him in the past because of he had been asking a lot of questions.
Martin also testified about the evangelical Lutheran church's five-page "social statement" adopted in 1991 on abortion, saying it encourages alternatives such as adoption but allows the procedure as "an absolutely last resort" provided it corresponds with the law.
Roeder's attorneys have been keeping their defense strategy under wraps. Defense attorney Steve Osburn may have dropped the first hint in front of jurors during his cross examination earlier in the day of usher Gary Hoepner, who had testified about the day of the shooting. He said he watched Roeder approach the doctor in church, put a gun to his head and pull the trigger.
Osburn asked Hoepner if he thought that action was "reasonable." Hoepner, clearly surprised by the question, responded, "No."
‘I'll shoot you’
Earlier Monday on cross examination by Osburn, Hoepner testified that he had seen Roeder at the church before the day of the shooting, and that Roeder said, "Lord forgive me," as he ran away, then looked back over his shoulder and told Hoepner, "Don't follow me or I'll shoot you."
Roeder's attorneys are expected to try to build a case for a conviction of voluntary manslaughter. In Kansas, voluntary manslaughter is defined as "an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force."
District Judge Warren Wilbert has banned a so-called necessity defense, which would be used to argue Roeder should be acquitted, and insisted the trial would not turn into a battle over abortion.
But the judge galvanized both sides of the debate when he refused to bar the defense from trying for a conviction on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter by arguing Roeder believed Tiller's killing would save unborn children.
Wilbert won't rule on whether to let jurors consider the lesser charge until after the defense rests its case.
Security in and around the courthouse has been heavy; a bomb-sniffing dog has been brought in, and spectators must show photo identification and are not allowed to bring coats or purses into the courtroom.
Roeder's supporters have largely watched the proceedings quietly from inside the courtroom, although a van with large pictures of aborted fetuses on the side was parked near the news trucks in front the courthouse on Monday.
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.