Wichita Prosecutors on Tuesday kept their case focused on the grim details of how a Kansas abortion provider was shot dead in his church, avoiding testimony about abortion and instead homing in on the actions and arrest of the man they say carried out the attack.
Scott Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, Mo., has publicly admitted shooting Dr. George Tiller but pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and aggravated assault charges. Defense attorneys are expected to try for a conviction of voluntary manslaughter, a charge that carries considerably less jail time, by arguing Roeder believed Tiller’s killing would save unborn children.
Prosecutors showed a video of Roeder’s arrest as he fled on Interstate 35, about an hour and a half north of Wichita. The video from the Johnson County Sheriff’s Department showed a cooperative Roeder ordered by deputies out of his car with his hands up.
Three officers approached Roeder with their guns drawn as he backs toward them and is ordered to lay on the ground.
Prosecutors also showed Roeder’s arrest photos and photos of apparent blood stains on Roeder’s black athletic shoes and at the bottom of his pants leg.
In other testimony Tuesday, Lt. Ken Landwehr, a homicide detective for the Wichita police department, testified that Tiller sustained a contact wound, meaning the gun used to kill him was put up against his head.
Prosecutors again showed jurors graphic photos of the crime scene, including photos of Tiller laying on the floor of the church after he had been shot, his face largely obscured by blood.
A Wichita motel clerk also testified that Roeder checked in the evening before the shooting and checked out uneventfully about 9:30 a.m. on the morning of the shooting.
Prosecutors may wrap up their case and defense attorneys may begin theirs as soon as Wednesday.
Prosecutors have rolled through 10 witnesses since trial testimony began Friday. Much of it focused on witness accounts of the May 31 shooting, its immediate aftermath and Roeder’s frequent visits to the Wichita church where Tiller was fatally shot while serving as an usher.
Church usher Keith Martin testified Monday that he saw Roeder at the church a half dozen times before the shooting. Unlike other churchgoers, Roeder always brought his own Bible and sat by himself, Martin said.
Martin also testified that anti-abortion protests at the church over the years made members suspicious of newcomers even before the shooting. Tiller, whose Wichita clinic closed after his death, championed abortion rights even after being shot in both arms by an activist in 1993.
At times, visitors had stood up in the congregation and started shouting, Martin said. Some even tried to take over the microphone, he said, and someone once tried to push a pianist off the stool.
Still, Martin said, he didn’t closely watch Roeder the day Tiller was shot because he had seen Roeder at previous services and that he had behaved peacefully.
Kristin Neitzel, a pastor at the church, testified that Roeder briefly attended the church’s special Saturday service the evening before the shooting, and that some church members had become suspicious of him because of he had been asking a lot of questions.
While Roeder’s attorneys have been keeping their defense strategy under wraps, defense attorney Steve Osburn may have dropped the first hint during his cross examination earlier Monday of usher Gary Hoepner, who had testified about the day of the shooting. Hoepner said he watched Roeder approach the doctor in church, put a gun to his head and pull the trigger.
Osburn asked Hoepner if he thought that action was “reasonable.” Hoepner, clearly surprised by the question, responded, “No.”
Roeder’s attorneys are expected to try to build a case for a conviction of voluntary manslaughter, which is defined in Kansas as “an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.” Roeder said in a court filing that he believed the killing would save “preborn babies” from abortion.
Such a conviction for someone with little criminal history would bring a sentence closer to five years, compared with the life sentence Roeder faces if found guilty of first-degree murder.
District Judge Warren Wilbert won’t rule on whether to let jurors consider the lesser charge until after the defense rests its case.
A Wichita-based anti-abortion group is condemning its founder for planning to attend the trial.
Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry says he will attend the trial “as a voice for babies who perished at George Tiller’s hand.”
Operation Rescue immediately condemned the slaying. Terry, who hasn’t been affiliated with the group for more than 17 years, has not.
Operation Rescue says Terry has isolated himself from the pro-life community because of his “extremism, fringe actions and bizarre media stunts.”