It took the jury in Wichita, Kan., last week just 37 minutes to convict Scott Roeder of first-degree murder, which carries a mandatory lifetime imprisonment. He is the 51-year-old abortion opponent who shot and killed Dr. George Tiller, who performed late-term abortions.
It was an appropriate verdict, but it left a question as to whether it could deter other such murders.
Judge Warren Wilbert rejected the defense team’s hope that the jurors could be instructed to take Mr. Roeder’s motive into account and consider a lesser conviction of manslaughter, with a lesser prison term.
That left the jury with only two alternatives: guilty or not guilty on the bare facts of the case. Mr. Roeder admitted that he had planned for many years to kill Dr. Tiller and had gone to the doctor’s church several times with a gun intending to kill him. He admitted that he walked into the church on May 31 and shot Dr. Tiller in the forehead.
The prosecution promised from the start to produce evidence proving that the killing was premeditated: a year-old brochure from Dr. Tiller’s Wichita church found in Mr. Roeder’s home, a receipt for an ammunition purchase 11 days before the killing, and Mr. Roeder’s calendar with May 31, the day of the shooting, marked on it.
Mr. Roeder told the jury that he considered abortion to be murder. He said, “It is never up to a man to take life. Only in the case of defense of self or defense of others.” At another point, asked by the public defender why he had killed Dr. Tiller, he said, “If someone did not stop George Tiller, he was going to continue as he had for 36 years. The babies. They were going to continue to die.”
Kansas law describes voluntary manslaughter, the lesser charge that the judge ruled out, as using deadly force in “an unreasonable but honest belief” that it was necessary to protect others from an imminent threat of unlawful violence. Judge Wilbert said that it did not apply in this case, because Dr. Tiller posed no imminent threat to anyone as he stood in his church and because his abortion practice was legal.
Conviction and loyalty to one’s beliefs are admirable, but not if they lead animal lovers to break into medical research labs to free the white mice or tree lovers to pound spikes into tree trunks to wreck chain saws and injure their operators. Or if these beliefs cause anti-abortion activists to kill doctors.
The appropriately harsh and quick verdict in this case should deter such vigilante killings.