NAF and ACLU Ask Court To Preclude Voluntary Manslaughter Charge In Roeder Trial

Jodi Jacobson

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) today filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the National Abortion Federation, the ACLU, and the ACLU of Kansas in the trial of Scott Roeder asking the court to preclude Roeder from arguing his anti-abortion beliefs in support of a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) today filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of the National Abortion Federation, the ACLU, and the ACLU of Kansas in the trial of Scott Roeder, the alleged murderer of Dr. George Tiller, asking the court to preclude Roeder from arguing his anti-abortion beliefs in support of a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter rather than first degree murder. 

“In a civilized society we cannot allow extremists to commit murder to advance their own religious or political beliefs,” said Vicki Saporta, President of the National Abortion Federation. “Scott Roeder should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”

“Allowing the defense to argue that Scott Roeder’s anti-abortion beliefs in any way lessen his accountability in Dr. Tiller’s murder sends an ominous signal to all vigilantes,” said Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.  “We should all be concerned; having sincere political beliefs does not mean someone should be able to get away with murder."

Roeder is charged with first degree murder in the shooting death of Dr. George Tiller on May 31, 2009, while Dr. Tiller was attending services at his local church.   According to a press release from ACLU, earlier this month in pre-trial hearings Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert ruled that he would not allow Roeder to use a justifiable homicide defense, but left open the possibility that the defense could put on evidence that would support the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter. This ruling might permit Roeder to argue that he was motivated by anti-abortion beliefs and therefore should be held less accountable.

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“This is a dangerous misinterpretation of the law,” said Doug Bonney, Chief Counsel and Legal Director, ACLU of Kansas & Western Missouri.  “No matter what our political or moral beliefs, we are not entitled to kill those who disagree with us.  We would not allow someone who murders a general to get a lesser sentence because the murder was motivated by a belief that war is unjustifiable.” 

"Doctors who provide abortion care deserve the full protection of the law," said the release.  

They devote their lives to ensuring that women can obtain the health care they need.  It is important that we support a woman’s ability to make this most private, personal decision, and it is critical that we protect the medical professionals who care for them.

If convicted of first degree murder, Roeder could be facing a life sentence; if convicted of voluntary manslaughter, he could receive less than 10 years for Dr. Tiller’s murder.

The ACLU brief is available at http://www.aclu.org/reproductive-freedom/state-kansas-v-roeder-aclu-amicus-brief.

News Law and Policy

Unanimous Supreme Court Strikes Massachusetts Buffer Zone Law

Jessica Mason Pieklo

According to the Roberts Court, Massachusetts had not shown that it tried to address clinic protests in a less restrictive means than enacting a fixed 35-foot buffer zone.

On Thursday, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court held that a Massachusetts law that provides for a 35-foot buffer zone around abortion clinics is unconstitutional.

The decision reverses a federal appeals court decision that had held that the buffer zone was constitutional.

The ruling, while unanimous, did not throw out buffer zones around abortion clinics entirely. According to the Court, the Massachusetts buffer zone law violates the First Amendment because it burdens more speech than necessary.

According to the Court, clinics should rely first on existing laws like local traffic ordinances to keep clinic protesters at a distance. Furthermore, the Court said, Massachusetts had not shown that it “seriously undertook” efforts to address clinic protests and blockades with the legal tools already available prior to enacting the buffer zone. Therefore, the Court held, the state could not show that the law at issue was narrowly tailored enough to meet the requirements of the First Amendment.

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“Petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks—sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history,” the Court wrote. “But here the Commonwealth has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers. It has done so without seriously addressing the problem through alternatives that leave the forum open for its time-honored purposes.”

Reproductive health and rights advocates expressed disappointment in the decision Thursday. “No one should be physically attacked or threatened for simply seeking out healthcare. Buffer zone laws, like the one in Massachusetts, create a safe space, which allows reproductive healthcare facilities to meet the needs of patients, including contraception, cervical cancer screenings, and abortion care.” said Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, in a statement following the opinion. “These facilities are often the only places where low-income women can access these critical services. Despite this disappointing decision, we will continue to work with advocates and policymakers to ensure that Latinas and their providers can seek and provide care without fear of violence, threats, or intimidation.”

Since enactment of the Massachusetts law, at least four states or local municipalities have enacted buffer zone laws.

News Law and Policy

ACLU Asks Court to Permanently Block Arkansas’ 12-Week Abortion Ban

Jessica Mason Pieklo

In a filing submitted to the court last week, attorneys for two clinics in the state asked a federal judge to make the temporary order blocking enforcement of the state's 12-week ban permanent.

Attorneys representing two Arkansas abortion providers asked a federal judge Friday to strike down a new state law that bans most abortions after 12 weeks.

The request was part of a motion for summary judgment brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arkansas and the Center for Reproductive Rights (CRR) and comes just weeks after attorneys for the state asked U.S. District Judge Susan Webber Wright to uphold the portion of the law that requires doctors to test for a fetal heartbeat before performing an abortion. Judge Wright has not issued a ruling in either request yet.

The law at the center of the dispute is blocked while the lawsuit on the merits of the challenge is pending, thanks to a temporary injunction granted in May. In the motion for summary judgment, lawyers for the ACLU and CRR want Judge Wright to make that temporary injunction permanent, while the state attorney general’s office has asked the judge to allow the state to enforce the heartbeat provision of the law when the constitutionality of the 12-week ban moves forward. Right now, trial in the case is anticipated sometime next year.

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