The Nation: Dangerous Parallels In Murder Trial

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Abortion opponents hold a silent protest i i

hide captionAbortion opponents hold a silent protest outside the courthouse on March 23, 2009 in Wichita, Kansas, where Scott Roeder faces criminal charges for murdering late term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.

Joe Stumpe/AFP/Getty Images
Abortion opponents hold a silent protest

Abortion opponents hold a silent protest outside the courthouse on March 23, 2009 in Wichita, Kansas, where Scott Roeder faces criminal charges for murdering late term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.

Joe Stumpe/AFP/Getty Images

The murder trial of Scott Roeder, confessed killer of abortion provider George Tiller, is being conducted as a case of savior against savior, which is in fact the title of the GQ piece detailing the events of May 31, 2009, the day Roeder shot Tiller in church. The piece begins on a disturbingly even-handed note: "Both men believed they were doing right..." And, though the judge has ruled that the jury will not be able to consider the killing either manslaughter or second-degree murder, the trial, which began last week in Wichita, Kansas, has unfortunately headed in a similar direction, with Roeder testifying today about his antiabortion beliefs, his religious awakening while watching The 700 Club on TV and his frustration with the legal system — as if any of this could way justify killing.

Perhaps Tiller, a family physician who ran an abortion clinic and one of the few doctors in the country to openly perform the procedure in the third trimester, did have some of the savior in him. His colleagues often referred to him as "Saint George," because he would frequently take cases no other doctor would, like that of an 11-year-old incest survivor. And he clearly believed deeply in what he was doing, as evidenced by the recently released video, in which he describes the predisposition to provide abortion as an "inner calling."

But the problem, or rather one of many, with drawing a parallel between victim and killer is that Tiller hewed to his profoundly held views without breaking the law, while Roeder's beliefs led him to commit homicide, as he's freely admitted he's done. As witnesses described in excruciating detail over this first week of testimony (video of the trial is being streamed by a local Kansas TV station), Roeder shot Tiller point-blank in his head in front of his wife and children while the doctor was serving in as an usher in church. (The details that have emerged of that morning — what would have been just another Sunday in church — bring home the barbarity of the crime: the music streaming out of the sanctuary; a fellow usher blithely reaching for a jelly roll just before the shot rang out; Tiller's wife, Jeanne, struggling to hold her dying husband's hand.)

The question now is not whether it was Roeder who did the shooting, which he confessed to on the stand, but whether there's any way he can be found not guilty of first-degree murder. Judge Warren Wilbert has ruled that the jury will not be able to consider Roeder's crime either second-degree murder or manslaughter. The former conviction, which carries shorter jail time than murder, was possible because a bizarre Kansas statute lays out a form of involuntary manslaughter committed on the ground that the killer has an honest belief — whether reasonable or unreasonable — that the circumstances justified deadly force. But, because testimony showed Tiller's murder clearly involved premeditation, forethought and planning, the judge has ruled that lesser crimes won't be under consideration.

Still, Judge Wilbert's decision to give the defense "some pretty wide latitude" in presenting evidence of Roeder's antiabortion beliefs is like an invitation to wacko killers everywhere: explain your reasons well enough and you might be able to get away with murder. Although Judge Wilbert has promised not to allow the case to become a "referendum on abortion," Roeder's lawyers have been pulling it in that direction. Already, in his opening statement, defense attorney Steve Osburn argued that Roeder killed Dr. Tiller "because he believed that was the only way to save the lives of the unborn." Later, in response to prompting from his attorney, Roeder himself explained that he objected to late-term abortions on the grounds of the mental health of the mother, since conditions such as anxiety and depression are "temporary." Roeder also said he opposed abortion in cases of incest and rape, since that amounted to "punishing the sins of the father." He said he even struggles with abortions when a woman's life is at stake, since such decisions should ultimately be "up to our heavenly father." The days ahead promise more attempts to explicate the idea spelled out on protesters' signs outside the courthouse — "Roeder's reason: The Babies." Judge Wilbert already seems to have failed in his stated intention to try Roeder's crime as opposed to his justifications.

If they are being treated as similar, there was, of course, a world of difference between confessed killer Scott Roeder and his victim. George Tiller was in most ways a moderate man. The doctor, father, grandfather and Navy veteran, who had returned from a trip to Disney World not long before being shot, was professionally guided by an idea that was anything but extreme. Tiller, who often wore a button that said "Trust Women," simply believed that women know best about their own pregnancies.

The sad truth is that such an openly women-centered view has become so rare that journalists — and perhaps even jurors and the general public — have come to see it as a fringe belief. The doctors willing to proclaim and act on their trust in women are few in number and marginalized, in part because doing so means opening oneself to the violence of lunatics like Roeder. No doubt the pool of brave, woman-centered physicians will dwindle far further if Roeder is not found guilty of first-degree murder.

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