The Trial of Scott Roeder: Days One and Two

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The Trial of Scott Roeder: Days One and Two

Carolyn Marie Fugit

A report from Kansas on the first two days of the trial of Scott Roeder.

Carolyn Marie Fugit is covering the trial of Scott Roeder on assignment for Rewire.


Walking into the Sedgwick County Courthouse Monday
morning, I saw a van covered in anti-abortion messages. Missionaries to the
Pre-Born Iowa, formed by Army of God member Dan Holman, was parked in front,
displaying grotesque images, pretty images, and messages saying abortion causes
breast cancer and against vaccination. Inside, David Leach waited for day two
of the trial to start. He and two companions talked to some members of the
media. I chatted with representatives from the Feminist Majority Foundation and
the National Abortion Federation. Outside the courtroom, the conversation was
all about abortion. Inside, it was suppose to be about a murder.

First in the morning are two ushers Scott Roeder
threatened after he shot Dr. George Tiller. Gary Hoepner stood at the
refreshments table with Dr. Tiller, chatting about donuts. He saw Roeder come
out of the sanctuary but thought nothing of it as he had seen Roeder the week
before. He looked down then saw someone else out of the corner of his eye and
looked up to see Roeder shoot.
Hoepner followed, trying to keep him from escaping. As they ran across
some grass, Roeder told Hoepner to stop following him, that he had a gun.
Public Defender Mark Rudy tried to say Hoepner could not be certain Roeder was
shouting at him, but Hoepner said Roeder turned his head and shouted it back at
him. Rudy tried again, as he had on Friday, to make a witness say protestors
often disrupted services because Dr. Tiller provided abortions. Hoepner did not
bite. In an attempt to play towards the lesser charge of voluntary
manslaughter, Rudy asked if Hoepner thought “what [Roeder] did was
reasonable?” Hoepner stated simply, “No.” Later, he recalls
letting his guard down, choking up because he felt bad he couldn’t stop Roeder.

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Keith Martin was not near Roeder when he shot Dr. Tiller,
but after he heard a loud pop, he turned around to see Dr. Tiller on the ground
and Roeder running across a courtyard. He tried a shortcut through Fellowship
Hall, not quite catching up with Roeder. Martin stared him down briefly as he
got into his car before Roeder stated he had a gun. As he drove off, Martin
threw his cup of coffee into the open driver’s side window, not knowing
entirely why. District Attorney Nola Foulston asks Martin about various
disruptions at the church over the years. He remembered five such times inside
the church and many protests outside. Rudy wanted to know if these protests
were against Dr. Tiller or against the church for having Dr. Tiller. Martin
said they were not just about Dr. Tiller: he had received mail stating he
should not be a Sunday school teacher because of the church he attended. He
described the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America’s social statement on
abortion, one that individuals have no obligation to abide by. It was adopted
in 1991 and has not been changed since. After a series of objections, the
defense decides they may recall Martin at a later date, presumably to talk more
about Dr. Tiller, Reformation Lutheran Church, and anti-abortion protestors.

On Sunday, May 31, 2009, Pastor Kristin Neitzel lead the
service. The night before, at a special Pentecostal service, she noticed Roeder
arrive late and sit away from the rest of the congregation. He left within 10
minutes of the service starting. She followed him out, concerned for security
reasons: ushers had told her late summer, early fall 2008, that they were
concerned about him. She would sit where he had been sitting and notice an
envelope on the pew. A question was written on the outside, asking if the
church was a 501(c)3 under the IRS tax code – a tax-exempt charitable
organization. On the witness stand, she identified a series of bulletins from
the church: August 2008; May 24th, 2009; May 30th, 2009. Sunday morning as she
lead service, she heard a sound she thought was the dropping of a hymnal. After
an usher pulled Senior Pastor Lowell Michelson out of the sanctuary, she was
asked if she wanted to continue with the service. She felt she should. After
the sermon, in accordance with the police, she informed the congregation of the
shooting, and lead them in prayer before they left the church for the day.

Day two ended with Judge Warren Wilbert reminding the
jury to not discuss the case or pay attention to any media coverage, paying
special heed to an issue of GQ published over the weekend that discussed the
case in detail. Outside, Leach and three others had their picture taken in
front of their van by convicted domestic terrorist Michael Bray. As the sun set
in Wichita, Kansas, everyone left, readying for Tuesday.



The first day of Scott Roeder’s murder trial introduced
us to courtroom decorum and evidence that had not yet been discussed in the
media, a preview of what to expect. Friends and supporters of Scott Roeder sat
only a few feet from the family of Dr. George Tiller.

Before the trial began, Judge Warren Wilbert reminded
everyone in the gallery to behave. We could not make audible noises – no grunts
or moans or cheers – and non-verbal cues – facial expressions or body movements
– that could influence the jury. If anyone disobeyed, they would be made to
leave. He could even hold them in contempt of court. Not everyone was pleased
by this. They had been waving to Roeder as he entered the room, and he had been
smiling back at them. Some of Roeder’s supporters would struggle with this
order for proper decorum throughout the day.

Judge Wilbert heard two motions, already brought before
the court. The prosecution requested, once again, that a defense for voluntary
manslaughter not be allowed. District Attorney Nola Foulston described it as
“a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” a backdoor for the necessity defense.
Judge Wilbert reminds the court and the public that the defense does not need
to provide any evidence and is presumed innocent. He cannot rule out evidence
before he hears it. He denied their motion “at this time,” allowing
them to bring objections on specific evidence later in the trial. The defense
once again asks for a change of venue after recognizing they accepted the jury
that has yet to be sworn in. The judge once again denies their request. The
trial will be held in Wichita.

After the jury is sworn in, Foulston gives her opening
statement. She reminds the jury that she is not presenting evidence, only what
she believes the evidence will show. On the morning of May 31, 2009, Scott
Roeder put a gun to George Tiller’s head and shot him. 911 received the first
call shortly after 10:02 am. A couple minutes later, another call gave dispatch
a description of the car and a plate number. And at 10:13 am, Dr. Tiller was
pronounced dead.

Roeder had stayed overnight at a hotel in Wichita, more
than three hours from where he lived. He stayed at a different one the week
before. When he was pulled over, officers found shoes in his car that had Dr.
Tiller’s blood splattered on them. At his home in Missouri, the FBI found a box
for a gun, a calendar with May 30 and 31 highlighted, a church bulletin from
Reformation Lutheran Church from August of 2008, and an ammunition receipt. The
day before, he went to his brother’s in Topeka, about an hour west of Kansas
City, and had some shooting practice. The FBI found several shell casings, one
of which was the same brand as the one found near Dr. Tiller’s body in Wichita.
The gun has still not been found.

The defense did not offer an opening statement at this
time, and the first witness was called. Diane Gage is Director of Emergency
Communications. We hear the first 911 call. The woman on the line, Kathy
Wegner, was distraught, telling 911 that Dr. Tiller had been shot in church and
the shooter had left. Gage walked through the times of the calls to 911 and to
emergency services. The first officer arrived at 10:07 Sunday morning and the
last one left after 7 Monday morning.

Wegner takes the stand and describes that morning. She is
quite matter-of-fact until she talks about the shooting and seeing Dr. Tiller
on the ground. She made the first call to 911. From the business office, she
could see others gathering around Dr. Tiller. She heard his wife, Jeanne,
scream. We are shown a picture taken that morning, Dr. Tiller laying many feet
away. A Roeder supporter from Texas begins to sway, beaming with joy at the
image of Dr. Tiller’s body. Security warned her to sit back and not smile or
she would have to leave. She begrudgingly complied. Meanwhile, Mrs. Tiller and
their family look away.

Two Wichita police officers describe the call and their
arrival at the church, showing more gruesome pictures. The last witness for the
day is Dr. Paul Ryding, a veterinarian specializing in equine medicine. He
tried to resuscitate Dr. Tiller. He remembered seeing Roeder towards the end of
2008. He remembered Roeder did not participate in the worship service, and when
he tried to engage Roeder later, Roeder was defensive, his conversation
fragmented. Public Defender Mark Rudy tried to make Ryding say he was on the
lookout for strangers because of Dr. Tiller’s field of medicine, a line of
questioning he used during the preliminary hearing. Ryding worked hard not to
go there. Rudy misunderstood part of Ryding’s testimony and started to say the
reason Ryding was suspicious of Roeder was because of abortion. Judge Wilbert
asked the jury to leave while the record was read back. Judge Wilbert offered
Rudy the benefit of the doubt that he simply mis-heard the testimony. He said
the line of questioning would not be allowed unless the witness opened the
door. “But the door is not open,” he stated. After the jury came
back, Rudy once again tried to get Ryding to say Dr. Tiller was killed because
of his practice. Judge Wilbert did not allow it. As he had said before, this
trial will not be about abortion.

With less than an hour left in the day, Judge Wilbert
called the day to an end reminding the jury to keep an open mind through the
weekend. We leave the courtroom one day down, several more to go.

Click here to read about The Roeder Trial, Day Three.