The trial of Scott Roeder, who is accused of murdering abortion provider Dr. George Tiller, began yesterday in Wichita, Kansas. Roeder is charged with one count of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly threatening two ushers who tried to stop him from entering Dr. Tiller’s church on May 31, 2009. Roeder has pleaded not guilty to all charges.
As Monica Davey at the New York Times points out, the case would appear to be a very simple one. Prosecutors intend to use testimonies from the many church-goers who witnessed Tiller’s murder, and furthermore, Roeder has admitted to the murder in numerous interviews from jail. However, Davey also points out that the outcome of the case is not as pre-determined as it might seem:
Mr. Roeder, who has pleaded not guilty, and his supporters have made it clear that they hope the trial will focus less on who killed Dr. Tiller than why — in essence, an effort to send the jury on a broader examination of abortion and the practices of one of the few doctors in the country who was known to provide abortions into the third trimester of pregnancy.
The judge in the case, Warren Wilbert of Sedgwick County District Court, has said he will not allow the case to be transformed into a trial on abortion. But he also indicated late last week that he might allow jurors to consider a defense theory by which Mr. Roeder could be convicted of voluntary manslaughter if jurors were to conclude that Mr. Roeder had, as Kansas law defines it, “an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.”
Judge Wilbert rejected Mr. Roeder’s efforts to present a so-called necessity defense, pursuing an acquittal on the basis that he was justified in his actions to prevent some greater harm. Still, the possibility now that jurors may be allowed to consider voluntary manslaughter, which carries a far shorter sentence than the life imprisonment he could face if convicted of first-degree murder, was seen as a victory for Mr. Roeder and a chance for his public defenders to lay out his views on abortion at the trial.
So although Wilbert has denied Roeder’s efforts to use a “necessity defense,” his willingness to allow jurors to consider voluntary manslaughter is troubling given the fact that this verdict could carry as little as five years of jail time—a measly sentence which could eventually be reduced even further.
As Katherine Spillar of the Feminist Majority Foundation notes, a potential sentence as benign as five years in jail could be a catalyst for anti-choice extremists who wish to follow Roeder’s example: “Allowing an argument that this cold-blooded, premeditated murder could be voluntary manslaughter will embolden anti-abortion extremists and could result in ‘open season’ on doctors across the country.” Spillar also points out that “Judge Wilbert had already rejected Roeder’s lawyers’ request to use the ‘justifiable homicide’ defense, citing a 1993 Kansas Supreme Court case predicting that such a defense would ‘not only lead to chaos but would be tantamount to sanctioning anarchy,” thus why he thinks a ‘voluntary manslaughter’ conviction would be any different is rather perplexing.
Let’s hope that the jury, at least, will see how disproportionate this potential conviction is to the crime that was actually committed: a pre-meditated murder of a doctor, community member, and women’s rights advocate.