Guilty Verdict Swift End To Anti-Abortionist's Trial

Abortion rights groups are relieved and anti-abortion activists feel cheated. Both sides in the debate are reacting to Friday's murder conviction in the death of Dr. George Tiller. Scott Roeder is facing a life sentence for killing Tiller, one of the few doctors in the U.S. to perform abortions late in pregnancy. Guest host Audie Cornish talks with NPR's Kathy Lohr, who's been covering the trial.

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AUDIE CORNISH, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.

Abortion rights groups are relieved this morning and anti-abortion activists feel cheated. Both sides in the debate are reacting to yesterday's murder conviction in the death of Dr. George Tiller. Fifty-one-year-old Scott Roeder was found guilty in the killing of Tiller, one of the few doctors in the U.S. to perform abortions late in pregnancy. NPR's Kathy Lohr covered the trial and she joins us this morning from Wichita. Hello, Kathy.

KATHY LOHR: Good morning, Audie.

CORNISH: So, talk about why this trial was so closely watched by activists for and against abortion.

LOHR: The defense tried to get the judge to allow the jury to consider this lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. And that would have meant a lesser sentence for Roeder. So, what some who oppose abortion wanted to see was that lesser sentence because they say Roeder has an honest belief that what he was doing was justified, because Roeder believes abortion is murder.

Now, the judge ruled this week that the voluntary manslaughter defense did not apply for a number of reasons. At the same time, a abortion rights activists feared that if the judge allowed the jury to consider that lesser charge it would definitely send the wrong message to others across the country who oppose abortion, because they feared that some might harm or even kill doctors or staff at clinics and then claim they shouldn't be prosecuted for murder but instead try to use that voluntary manslaughter defense.

CORNISH: Since the murder last May, Tiller's clinic in Wichita has closed. Are anti-abortion groups still protesting there?

LOHR: You might know that Operation Rescue moved its headquarters to Wichita, specifically to target Tiller. And since the murder, the group has shifted its attention to other doctors who perform late abortions, including Warren Hern in Colorado and especially Dr. LeRoy Carhart in Nebraska. Now, Carhart had originally said he would open another clinic here in Wichita. But since then he has said he's likely to continue performing abortions in Nebraska.

He was one of the doctors who regularly worked with Tiller. So, now much of Operation Rescue is directed towards trying to shut down Carhart's clinic. As for others in the pro-life movement, in a statement yesterday, national Right to Life said it opposes abortion and also opposes any violence used to fight it.

But some other activists that were attending the trial signed a petition saying Roeder should be able to use a justifiable homicide defense. They said that Roeder did not get a fair trial because abortion did not end up being the central issue in this case.

CORNISH: And my understanding, Kathy, abortion rights activists are calling for the Department of Justice to investigate and possibly file additional charges against Roeder who's going to be sentenced in March.

LOHR: That's right; because they want the federal government to crackdown on what they say is a network of extremists. Some fear more violence against abortion providers. These are folks that have also asked for federal help since back in the '90s after there were murders of two doctors and a clinic escort in Pensacola, Florida.

Now, the Justice Department has said its case related to the murder of Tiller is still open, but that officials have not yet decided whether to file any charges.

CORNISH: All right. And, Kathy, can you tell us a little bit more about the sentencing of Mr. Roeder?

LOHR: Sentencing is set for March 9th in this case, and Roeder faces life with the possibility of parole in 25 years. Although the prosecutor has said she will now make the argument for what she called a hard 50. And that means that Roeder would not have the possibility of parole for at least 50 years.

CORNISH: NPR's Kathy Lohr in Wichita. Kathy, thanks for talking with us.

LOHR: My pleasure.

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