Wichita On the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, prosecutors who charged a man with killing one of the nation’s few late-term abortion providers got through the first day of testimony without mentioning the word abortion in front of jurors.
They began presenting a murder case focused on emotional eyewitness testimony, recordings of frantic 911 calls and photos of Dr. George Tiller’s body lying in a pool of blood in his church foyer.
DNA evidence linking Tiller to confessed killer Scott Roeder, forensic analyses of bullet casings and video of Roeder at local hotels are expected to follow in the prosecutors’ case — but no mention of abortion, at least for as long as they can avoid it.
Still, what lawyers simply called the “a-word” when the jury was not present was the most contentious issue in court Friday. And its absence from the transcript could change when Roeder’s defense team has a chance to try to argue he believed the killing was justified to save unborn children.
District Attorney Nola Foulston’s opening statement methodically outlined the events prosecutors hope will convince jurors to return a premeditated, first-degree murder verdict, rather than a lesser voluntary manslaughter conviction expected to be sought by the defense.
Roeder’s attorneys are keeping their defense strategy under wraps until the last possible minute, deferring their opening statement until they are ready to put on their entire case.
At one point Friday, District Judge Warren Wilbert stopped defense attorney Mark Rudy from using the word abortion when cross-examining a witness who had not first used it himself.
If the witness brings it up, “that’s fair game, and you can explore it,” Wilbert said.
Paul Ryding testified he had an “awkward conversation” with Roeder when Roeder came to church services six months before the shooting. Ryding said he had a feeling Roeder had “an agenda,” without explaining what he thought that might be.
But Ryding steadfastly skirted the word abortion when pressed.
Wilbert has repeatedly said the trial will not turn into a battle over abortion. But he galvanized both sides of the debate when he refused to bar the defense from trying for a conviction on the lesser charge by arguing Roeder believed Tiller’s killing would save unborn children.
The judge has said he will rule at the time the defense presents its evidence about how much jurors will be allowed to hear.