Wichita — The trial of one of the nation’s few late-term abortion providers began Monday with defense attorneys trying to cast doubt on whether the doctor intentionally broke a state law requiring that an independent physician sign off on the procedure.
Dan Monnat, a defense attorney for Dr. George Tiller, told jurors in his opening statement that Tiller relied on advice from the state medical board’s director and one of his lawyers when he used Dr. Kristin Neuhaus as a second opinion for some abortions.
Neuhaus operated an abortion clinic from 1997 to 2002 at 205 W. Eighth St. in Lawrence.
Tiller is charged with 19 misdemeanors alleging he failed to obtain a second opinion for some late-term abortions in 2003 from a physician with whom he had no legal or financial relationship.
Kansas law allows late-term abortions if two doctors agree that it is necessary to save a women’s life or prevent “substantial and irreversible” harm to “a major bodily function,” a phrase that’s been interpreted to include mental health.
Assistant Attorney General Barry Disney told jurors in his opening statements that Tiller recruited Neuhaus in 1999, making his Wichita clinic a “one-stop shop” for women seeking abortions. He said that Neuhaus was in essence an employee of Tiller, that the two were so close they had a legal and financial relationship prohibited by the law.
“No one is above the law. It doesn’t matter how just someone feels their cause is,” Disney said.
Monnat told jurors that Tiller had approval from the State Board of Healing Arts and one of his own lawyers to use Neuhaus as a second opinion for abortions — even though Sedgwick County District Judge Clark Owens noted earlier in the day that Kansas does not allow ignorance of the law or advice of counsel as a valid defense.
In his opening statement, Monnat stated that Larry Buening, then-executive director of the Kansas Board of Healing Arts, suggested to Tiller in July 1999 that he use Neuhaus as a second opinion.
Monnat said Buening told Tiller the discussion was “off the record” and told him that if asked about it he would deny it, adding that Buening has since said he can’t recall the conversation.
Buening did not return a call from The Associated Press for comment.
Monnat told jurors that the board “recognized and approved” Tiller’s relationship with Neuhaus until 2006, when abortion became a campaign issue in the attorney general’s race.
Disney noted in his opening statement that Tiller provided Neuhaus with legal advice from his attorney, including writing for her the referral form letter used to provide that second opinion. He said Neuhaus — who was paid by patients between $250 and $300 in cash for her consultation — was in essence an employee of Tiller.
“By 2003, Dr. Neuhaus was a full-time consultant for the defendant,” Disney said. “That is all she did. She had no other job, no other source of income.”
Neuhaus, testifying under a grant of immunity, was expected to be the prosecution’s only witness.
On the stand, Neuhaus repeatedly said she could not recall many details under questioning by Disney — even when repeatedly shown a deposition in which she answered some of the same questions.
She blamed some of the conflicting statements from that 2006 deposition on a “pretty hostile engagement” with Stephen Maxwell, a former assistant attorney general under former Attorney General Phill Kline. “I felt so attacked by him I don’t remember what I was saying,” Neuhaus said.
But under questioning by Disney, Neuhaus testified she was paid in cash by Tiller’s patients, who were told by his staff in advance to bring the cash to pay her. She also acknowledged that the only way the patients could see her was to make an appointment with Tiller’s office.
She also testified that when Tiller called her about consulting in his clinic, Tiller told her that Buening had recommended her to him. Neuhaus said she asked her father, a longtime Kansas lawyer and former judge, about the arrangement with Tiller to make sure it was legal.
Neuhaus returns to the stand today.