Keeping Abortion Out Of Anti-Abortionist's Trial

Jurors begin hearing evidence in the trial of a man who has admitted killing a doctor who performed abortions. Scott Roeder is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting of Dr. George Tiller at his church in Wichita last May. The district attorney has fought to keep any mention of abortion out of the trial.

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The trial of a man accused of killing a Kansas abortion provider is under way in Wichita. Prosecutors have charged Scott Roeder with first-degree murder in the shooting of Dr. George Tiller. And last week they began to make their case.

Roeder has admitted he is guilty. He says he killed Tiller to protect unborn babies, and he says he should be allowed to tell that to the jury. But the district attorney has fought to keep any mention of abortion out of the trial.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR: The trial began on the anniversary of the day the U.S. Supreme Court legalized abortion. That night there was a candlelight vigil for abortion providers killed in the past 15 years.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: Dr. David Gunn of Pensacola, Florida was fatally shot during a protest.

LOHR: About 30 abortion rights activists came to honor George Tiller and the remaining doctors who still provide abortions.

Ms. KARI ANN RINKER (Coordinator, Kansas National Organization for Women): We have to take a stronger stand or else the doctors will just cease to exist because of fear.

LOHR: Kari Ann Rinker is the state coordinator for the Kansas Chapter of the National Organization for Women. She's concerned because the judge has not ruled out the possibility of allowing evidence that could lead to a lesser voluntary manslaughter charge, which carries a 5 to 10-year sentence instead of life in prison.

Ms. RINKER: I think it's a very real possibility, with the right jurors gathered, that they could come to a completely illogical conclusion. And that is frightening.

LOHR: The judge has said he'll decide what evidence will be heard on a case-by-case basis. Prosecutors say this is a murder trial, that evidence about abortion is immaterial. But some who oppose abortion say Roeder should be given the chance to tell the jury why he committed the crime.

Ms. JENNIFER MCCOY: He should be able to present whatever evidence he feels necessary to explain whatever happened and what his belief was.

LOHR: Jennifer McCoy is eight months pregnant with her 10th child. She visits Roeder about once a week in jail. She says she's not surprised the prosecution has worked so hard to keep the abortion issue out of the trial.

Ms. MCCOY: Because they dont want to touch that with a 10-foot pole. Thats the whole thing that they want to avoid, when they realize that this case is mostly about that.

LOHR: In the courtroom during opening remarks, prosecutors did not mention abortion. Witnesses testified about the day Tiller was shot. They described the sound of the single gunshot and the bloody scene in the church foyer.

But defense attorney Mark Rudy tried to get abortion into the court record as he cross-examined church member Paul Riding(ph), who said Roeder had been to the church about six months before the crime. Rudy asked why the church was sometimes the target of those who wanted to interfere with services.

Mr. MARK RUDY (Defense Attorney): These people had disrupted your church before. Why did they disrupt your church?

Mr. PAUL RIDING: They probably dont like somebody in our church.

Mr. RUDY: Who would that be?

Mr. RIDING: Some of the Tillers. I dont know, maybe Mabel(ph).

LOHR: Defense attorneys did not give an opening statement, but reserved the time for later when they begin their case.

Prosecutors say as the trial continues, theyll produce evidence about the gun Roeder bought, his target practice the day before Tiller was killed and a calendar found at his home which highlighted the dates Tiller would be serving as a church usher.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Wichita.

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