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'The Assassination of Dr. Tiller'

Msnbc documentary looks into whether there were larger forces behind abortion doctor's murder.
/ Source: news services

Nearly a year and a half after the murder of Kansas abortion provider George Tiller, msnbc is airing the documentary "The Assassination of Dr. Tiller," detailing events leading to the crime. 

Scott Roeder, 52, of Kansas City, Mo. was found guilty of first-degree murder of Dr. George Tiller last January. On the witness stand, Roeder admitted that he shot Tiller in the head, saying it was in defense of the lives of unborn children. Tiller was one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers.

The msnbc documentary includes interviews with eyewitnesses to the murder, trial footage of Roeder on the stand, never-before-seen video of Tiller talking about an attempt on his life, and an interview with Roeder's ex-wife, Lindsey. She traces Roeder's path from his anti-abortion stance to murder: his obsession with Paul Hill, the man convicted and executed for murdering Florida abortion provider John Britton, and his communication with Rachelle Shelly Shannon, the woman in prison for attempting to kill Tiller in 1993.

"It was hard to live with," said Lindsey Roeder in the film.

Despite the verdict against Roeder and his life sentence, Tiller's former co-workers continue to seek justice. In the documentary, they lay responsibility not on Roeder but on anti-abortion activists, who they believe created the "atmosphere of hatred" and have targeted the clinic for years. Doctors and nurses who worked with Tiller recount, on camera, intimidation tactics aimed at anyone associated with the clinic.

"We were under siege the whole time," says Cathy Reavis, a nurse at the clinic.

"The anti-abortionists who don't carry guns definitely incite the ones who do," said Shelly Sella, one of Tiller's fellow doctors.

Reavis specifically singles out Operation Rescue, an activist group who posted clinicians' names, photographs, and profiles online. Operation Rescue filed numerous complaints against Tiller's clinic with the Kansas state board. The group takes credit for bringing Tiller’s abortion practice into the national spotlight, particularly on Fox News' "O'Reilly Factor." Host Bill O'Reilly talked about the doctor numerous time, sometimes calling him as "Tiller the Baby Killer."

Operation Rescue president Troy Newman agreed to be interviewed for the msnbc documentary, despite what the organization fears will be a "heavily slanted" presentation. 

After the murder, police discovered a piece of evidence — a slip of paper with Operation Rescue's phone number — in Roeder's vehicle.

Newman flatly denies that the group had any ties to Roeder or the murder. He acknowledges the media attention the group received following this news, but clarifies that the phone number was an informational hotline for the organization and has been widely published online. "We're certainly not suspects in this case," he says. 

"We were shocked and horrified about [Dr. Tiller's murder] just like everybody else," Newman says.

For the documentary's co-creator and narrator, Rachel Maddow, the story is more than about a crime against an abortion provider.

"Scott Roeder was linked to a number of different political and protest groups," says the msnbc host. "One of the things that was hard to report on at the time was the widespread evidence of people celebrating the murder — it was all over the Web on Twitter, on Facebook, on blog comments. Those anecdotal observations didn't necessarily fit into the daily news coverage of the murder — but it's one of the things that stuck with me, that made me want to look into the story in more depth."

"Anti-abortion forces have succeeded in restricting the availability of abortion through lots of means short of outright prohibition — everything from punitive regulations... to physical intimidation and harassment of abortion providers," says Maddow. "Harassment, intimidation, and violence shouldn't be confused with the noble tradition of American protest — they're crimes, and they should be investigated and prosecuted as such."

The investigation may not be over: The Associated Press reported earlier this month that a federal grand jury is looking into whether there is a broader case involving radical anti-abortion activists.

Two of Roeder's former roommates recently told the Kansas City Star that they testified before a grand jury. "They're trying to see if there is any conspiracy," said one of Roeder's former roommates, who declined to be identified.

"The Assassination of Dr. Tiller" airs Monday, Oct. 25, 9 p.m. ET on msnbc.