To Understand the Trial of Scott Roeder Read
Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War
by James Risen and Judy L. Thomas
Basic Books 1998
If you want to understand the back story as Scott Roeder goes to trial in Wichita, Kansas for the murder of Dr. George Tiller, go to James Risen and Judy L. Thomas’ 1998 book,Wrath of Angels: The American Abortion War. It is all there: the dynamic inside the “pro-life” movement that produces killers when the chances are not high that the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade; the emergence of the Army of God as a supra-organizational name tag for clinic bombers; the first “Defensive Action” statement signed by people who supported doctor killers; Shelley Shannon’s 1993 shooting of Dr. Tiller; and the mass civil disobedience of the “Summer of Mercy.”
The last three points will be particularly salient during the Roeder trial.
In 1991, anti-choice zealot Randall Terry and his Operation Rescue brought thousands of activists to Wichita to sit-in, chain themselves to the doors and otherwise close down medical clinics for women that provided abortion services. They called it the Summer of Mercy, and the Tiller clinic was at the top of the target list. To a large extent the antis succeeded when the clinics acceded to a police request that they shut down during the protests. This chapter of the book rings with the truth of those moments largely because Thomas was a reporter for the Wichita Eagle-Beacon at the time, and personally covered that story in depth. She writes that “nearly 2,700 arrests” were made during the 46 days of civil disobedience. And that many churches opened their doors to the protestors.
The fallout from that campaign was felt almost immediately. One of the most ardent protestors, Shelley Shannon, traveled again from her home in Oregon in 1993 and managed to shoot Dr. Tiller in both of his arms. Then in the 1994 election, a one-term Kansas Republican state senator named Todd Tiahrt found a constituency among local anti-abortion activists energized by the protests. He defeated a multi-termed Democrat incumbent congressman named Dan Glickman, 53% to 47%. Tiahrt has won every election since and has continued to rile anti-abortion waters at every available venue.
It will be from this pool of voters–who opened their church doors to Randall Terry’s protestors and that re-elects Todd Tiahrt like clockwork–that the jury will be selected to try Scott Roeder. Personally, it is beyond me why Roeder’s defense asked for a change of venue. Lucky for Roeder, the judge turned him down. All he needs is for one of those protestors or one of the sympathizers to squeak through voir dire and the prosecution is in trouble.
Further, it will be while the jury is deliberating that the theory of Defensive Action, so brilliantly explained in Wrath of Angels, will make a difference. Put most simply, advocates of defensive action believe that committing violence against clinics and doctors, including murder, is appropriate, even good, because it will save the so-called pre-born.
In an odd twist in the courtroom last week, the judge okayed a defense by Roeder that would enable him to argue that he believed, however mistakenly, that killing Dr. Tiller was justified because it would save the pre-born. If jurors believe that Roeder acted on sincere beliefs rather than on the basis of a criminal ideology, then it could be possible for him to be found guilty simply of voluntary manslaughter–which carries a shorter jail term than first degree murder.
In that case, the man who stalked Dr. George Tiller for weeks, the man who shot him down in cold blood while he served as a church usher on Sunday morning could then walk free in just another couple of years.
Read Risen and Thomas’ Wrath of Angels. You will pay closer attention and understand more about what is at stake in a Wichita courtroom over the next few weeks.