Wichita, Kan. Unrepentant and unapologetic, the man who gunned down one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers and insisted it was justified hopes to call character witnesses at his sentencing next week in a case that has inflamed both sides of the abortion debate.
The divisive issue of abortion — for the most part kept out of the murder trial itself — is expected to get an airing Thursday before Scott Roeder is sentenced to life in prison. Roeder has been gathering suggestions from supporters as he prepares his remarks and has asked some longtime friends and fellow anti-abortion activists to testify on his behalf.
"It is a public moment in which people get their last look at this guy," said Michael Kaye, director of Washburn University School of Law's Center for Excellence in Advocacy in Topeka.
Roeder, 52, was convicted in January of first-degree murder for the May 31 death of Dr. George Tiller as the physician was serving as an usher at his Wichita church. The Kansas City, Mo., man also was convicted of two counts of aggravated assault for threatening two ushers who tried to stop him after the shooting.
"You can't get around the fact that this is a different kind of case," Kaye said. "It sounds like what we would call an assassination. It is a political trial, whether the judge thinks it is political or not."
Even the April 1 sentencing date holds significance to those in the anti-abortion movement. It was on that date in 2004 that then-President George W. Bush signed The Unborn Victim's of Violence Act that expanded the legal rights of the unborn by making it a separate crime to harm a fetus during an assault on a pregnant woman.
"What is going to happen for him is an opportunity to say something publicly about what he believes," Kaye said.
The victim's family also will also be given a chance to speak at the sentencing.
Attorney Lee Thompson, who represents the Tillers, said it has not yet been determined how the doctor's family plans to handle the victim impact statement.
District Judge Warren Wilbert has little discretion in handing down the sentence. Under Kansas law, Roeder faces a mandatory sentence of life in prison with the possibility of parole after 25 years on the first-degree murder conviction. But Wilbert must decide whether to grant prosecutors' request that Roeder be required to serve at least 50 years behind bars before he is eligible for parole.
Kansas statute allows for the harsher sentence in the event of aggravating circumstances, one of which is prior stalking of the victim. Roeder testified he took a gun into the doctor's church on two previous occasions and checked out the gated subdivision where he lived and the clinic where he practiced.
Also pending is a defense motion for a new trial. Roeder's lawyers argue the judge erred by not allowing jurors to consider a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.
Defense attorney Mark Rudy on Friday declined to comment on the character witnesses, but he said the defense is challenging the constitutionality of a possible "Hard 50" sentence.
"I hope he doesn't get the Hard 50," Rudy said. "That is the only thing that is in play here."
Dave Leach, an anti-abortion activist from Des Moines, Iowa, said Roeder has asked him and other friends to testify.
"Mark Rudy initially was saying absolutely not — there are not going to be any character witnesses — and Scott is the one who really got passionate about it," Leach said. "He really took the bull by the horns and made a fuss until Mark Rudy finally relented and allowed it."
Leach said he and several other supporters have given Roeder ideas for his sentencing statement, but he did not know what Roeder planned to say.
In a jailhouse recording Leach posted on YouTube after the verdict, Roeder said he believed the lives of unborn children were being taken by abortion, and he could not understand how prosecutors sidestepped the issue during trial because it was what motivated his actions. He also showed little sympathy for Tiller's widow and four adult children, likening them to the family of a hit man.
Also planning to testify as a character witness for Roeder is Eugene Frye, an abortion opponent from Kansas City, Mo.
"This wasn't someone who had a vindictive heart who was going to go out and gain anything by his actions," Frye said. "There was nothing to gain, nothing to do but to look at a life in prison. The abortion issue is what drives people."
Richard Schilling, another longtime friend of Roeder's and fellow anti-abortion activist, said Roeder asked him to be a character witness but he declined because he did not think he would be able to do him "any good" and did not want to prejudice the proceedings.
"There are numerous pro-life people that believe what he has done is the right thing to do, and I don't share that belief," Schilling said.
Although Roeder has a statutory right to make a statement at his sentencing, it is up to the judge to decide whether to hear witnesses, said Kaye, the legal expert.
"It is a very humane idea," Kaye said. "It doesn't mean they will change the judge's mind."