It only took a jury about half an hour in 2010 to convict Scott Roeder of first-degree murder for the 2009 shooting death of Dr. George Tiller at Tiller’s church in Wichita, Kansas. Roeder admitted during the trial that he had thought about and planned Tiller’s murder for years. He offered no witnesses in his defense. Instead, Roeder argued that he was justified in Tiller’s murder because it was the only way to end abortion in Wichita.
Roeder was sentenced to life with no chance for parole for 50 years, otherwise known as a “hard 50.” But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decision ruled juries, not judges, needed to make certain criminal sentencing decisions. Though a jury convicted Roeder of the crime of first-degree murder, a judge issued his sentence. That means Roeder’s underlying murder conviction stands, but the amount of time he’s supposed to serve is now up for grabs. On Wednesday, a judge ruled that a new jury will have to decide if Roeder’s “hard 50” sentence was justified. And with that potential new sentencing comes a fresh opportunity for Roeder and his attorneys to advance the radical legal argument that the murder of abortion doctors is justified under the law—a particularly alarming sentiment at a time when anti-choice violence has spiked.
The necessity defense invoked by Roeder is an actual, legitimate legal defense where the defendant argues they committed a particular crime in order to avoid a greater “harm or evil” being committed. To that extent, it is not so much an “I didn’t do it” defense as it is a “there’s a good reason why I did it, and so you should go easy on me” defense. In Roeder’s case, as echoed by other anti-choice radicals, murdering abortion doctors is “necessary” to prevent the greater evil of legal abortion.
Not all states recognize the necessity defense; Kansas generally doesn’t. And suffice it to say that no court has recognized the defense in connection with the murder of a doctor for doing his job. But that didn’t stop Roeder and his attorneys from arguing it anyway, and it won’t stop them from doing it again this summer.
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Nor, for that matter, did it stop Sedgwick County District Court Judge Warren Wilbert from saying Wednesday that Roeder may have a constitutional right to present his evidence for why the necessity defense should apply to his case. Essentially, Roeder and his attorneys can potentially outline for a new jury all the reasons Roeder felt his killing of Tiller was for the greater good.
This is not the first time Wilbert has indicated a willingness to consider Roeder’s “necessity” defense. Wilbert also oversaw Roeder’s initial criminal trial and ruled that Roeder couldn’t specifically argue the necessity defense because Kansas law does not recognize it. But Wilbert did leave the door open for Roeder to present during his first trial evidence and arguments that he murdered Tiller to defend the lives of “the unborn.” That opening could have allowed jurors to find Roeder guilty of a lesser charge like voluntary manslaughter, defined under Kansas law as the “unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.” That didn’t happen, thankfully, and the jury convicted Roeder of intentional first-degree murder, a crime that carries an automatic sentence of life in prison. Now, because of the 2013 Supreme Court ruling, a jury will determine whether Roeder must serve at least 25 or 50 years of his life sentence before he is eligible for a parole hearing.
Roeder’s next scheduled hearing is on April 29, when Roeder’s attorneys have been instructed by the court to provide any “mitigating factors” a jury should consider in weighing Roeder’s sentence. Roeder’s actual sentencing hearing has not yet been scheduled.
Roeder’s re-sentencing may seem like one of those “procedural” issues that doesn’t change much. The chance of Roeder, who was 51 when convicted, of dying in prison is likelier than him ever being paroled. But it is a procedural issue that comes at an inauspicious time for the issue of violence against abortion providers, especially in Kansas.
Angel Dillard, a woman who claims to be a “minister” to Scott Roeder, is set to stand trial in Kansas on May 3 for claims she threatened Dr. Mila Means, another Wichita abortion provider, out of taking over Tiller’s clinic following his murder. According to reports, Dillard told Means in a 2011 letter that thousands of people across the country were looking into her background. “They will know your habits and routines,” the letter read. “They know where you you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live. You will be checking under your car [every day]—because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it.” That letter prompted the Department of Justice to bring a Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act claim against Dillard. Initially, a federal court ruled Dillard’s letter was protected free speech, but a federal appeals court overturned that decision and ordered Dillard to stand trial.
During their initial investigation of Dillard, the Obama administration had tried, unsuccessfully, to find out what connection she had to Roeder after prison logs revealed Roeder had several communications with Dillard and Rev. Michael Bray. Bray, an Ohio anti-choice radical, also promotes the use of lethal force in the battle over abortion rights, and spent four years in prison in connection with attacks on several abortion clinics in the Washington, D.C. area.
When Dillard’s trial begins in May, the Justice Department could, through other evidentiary means, be able to make the specific connections between Roeder, Dillard, and Bray without relying on testimony from any of them. Justice Department attorneys may even be able to connect Tiller’s murder, and the threats against Means, to other Wichita-based anti-choice activists like Operation Rescue’s Troy Newman. When Roeder was arrested, for example, he had Newman’s second-in-command Cheryl Sullenger’s phone number in his car. Sullenger served almost two years in prison after pleading guilty to her role in a 1988 plan to bomb a California abortion clinic.
And, of course, the consequences of these operations reach beyond Wichita or anti-choicers’ direct contacts. Most recently Sullenger and Newman have admitted to their roles in “consulting” with the radical anti-choice Center for Medical Progress, an organization set up by David Daleiden and others to try and prove through infiltration that Planned Parenthood and other providers were selling unlawfully selling fetal tissue for profit. Planned Parenthood has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing. But CMP’s videos, and the dozens of baseless state and federal investigations they’ve inspired, have produced a significant uptick in violent threats and activities against abortion providers, such as the Black Friday siege of a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The attack ended in the shooting deaths of three people; the accused shooter, Robert Lewis Dear Jr., has said he committed the murders to “save the babies.”
Dear had initially said he planned to plead guilty to the murder charges connected with the Planned Parenthood attacks. He has apparently changed his mind and, if found competent to stand trial, would now like to plead not guilty.
There is no evidence, at least none disclosed, that Dear had any direct contact with anti-choice radicals like Newman or Sullenger, or that he even knows who they are. The Colorado Supreme Court recently ordered documents related to Dear’s arrest unsealed. They could be disclosed as soon as next week, and could provide more answers as to any relationships Dear has with the broader anti-choice movement.
Roeder, Dillard, Dear. All three cases will be going on this summer as anti-choice activists descend in July on Wichita to mark the 25th anniversary of the Summer of Mercy, a massive protest organized by radicals to try and make Wichita “abortion free.” Operation Rescue first orchestrated the 46-day campaign in 1991; Operation Save America (OSA) has since picked up the mantle. According to Rusty Thomas, director of OSA, July’s protest will focus on “states defying a tyrannical court” that recognized the right to an abortion.
“They must do their duty to interpose and nullify that lawless decree and protect the preborn,” Thomas told Christian Newswire.
Thomas insists July’s protests will be peaceful. But anti-choice radicals also insist their rhetoric and propaganda have no link to violence against abortion providers, even in the face of evidence to the contrary. So even if Thomas is correct and July’s protests produce no immediate acts of violence, the Roeder, Dillard, and Dear trials show “peaceful” anti-choice activity is an oxymoron.
Many anti-choice radicals hold Roeder up as a hero, and his re-sentencing hearing provides an opportunity to rally against the “lawless decree” of Roe v. Wade, as well as the courts that protect abortion rights and convicted Roeder of his crimes. It also provides as a forum for Roeder and his attorneys to yet again advance, even fruitlessly, the legal argument that murder of an abortion doctor can sometimes be justified if the murderer really truly believes they are preventing a greater evil. Dillard will be arguing in her trial that her letter to Dr. Means suggesting she’d wake up to a bomb under her car wasn’t truly a threat because abortion providers should just expect those kinds of letters. Roeder, Dillard, and their attorneys will be in courts of law in Kansas arguing for not just the normalization of violence against abortion providers, but the legal justification for it. And Dear’s trial will be displaying the natural extension of that rhetoric.
Meanwhile, Thomas will be calling on their supporters and the courts to ignore the rule of law. That is troubling—to say the least.