After four days of uncontroverted testimony detailing the murder of Dr. George Tiller, Scott Roeder took the stand on Thursday, January 28, in his own defense. He betrayed not an ounce of emotion as he described pulling a .22 caliber pistol out of his pocket and shooting Dr. Tiller in the head. His voice showed no regret when, under the guidance of his defense attorney, he walked the jury through his crime. There was no anger to display when he was supposed to be frustrated by the inability of shooters, bombers and an anti-choice attorney general to shut Dr. Tiller’s clinic down in the past.
The prosecution elicited testimony from Roeder that he had decided in 2002 to kill the doctor. Even then the shooter barely batted an eyelash. All he wanted to do was “save the unborn babies” he told the court in the flat monotone that characterized his hours on the witness stand. On his escape drive from Wichita, Roeder told the jury, he stopped and got a quick lunch. Why did you get food, he was asked, to calm your nerves down? “I was hungry,” he said.
In the back of the court, Dr. Tiller’s family struggled to keep their composure while television cameras kept flicking on them so that viewers could see the family’s pain.
The prosecutor, District Attorney Nola Foulston, tried to quell the quiver in her voice when asking Roeder questions directly related to the murder. Even the defense attorney occasionally seemed stunned by the enormity of his client’s crime. “Whatever,” seemed to be Roeder’s major emotion.
Scott Roeder convicted himself of a calculated first degree murder. Otherwise, the major events in the courtroom were the ones that did not happen.
Roeder hoped to call former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline as a witness for the defense. Kline, a long-time partisan of the Christian right, now teaches at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, He had been elected state attorney general in 2002 on the strength of his support among anti-abortion activists. Shortly after he took office, Kline began an investigation of clinics that provided abortions–an investigation in which individual women were identified and their private medical records subject to search. (That investigation has resulted in a formal disciplinary complaint against Kline for violations of rules of professional conduct–Case Nos. DA10,088 and DA10,598–which will be heard on May 26-28.) In 2006, the attorney general charged Tiller with a number of misdemeanors–charges which were dismissed overnight. Kline proffered testimony for the defense without the jury in the room so that the judge could determine whether or not it was relevant. Tiller was performing “unlawful abortions,” Kline opined. But the judge saw Kline’s attempts to smear a dead man differently and dismissed him before he could come before Roeder’s jury. Kline’s so-called evidence was “improper,” Judge Wilbert said.
Also missing was any significant testimony about Roeder’s association in the 1990s with a militia-type group known as the Freemen. The Freemen rested on the theories of the Posse Comitatus before it: that there is a constitutional difference between organic sovereigns (white Christians of European dissent like themselves) whose rights and responsibilities came from God, and those they deemed Fourteenth Amendment citizens, whose rights were supposedly lesser because they were granted by the federal government. Best known in Montana because of months spent in a standoff with the FBI, the Freemen also had about a hundred devotees living in the state of Kansas. In 1996, Roeder was arrested after his vehicle was stopped because he was sporting a “sovereign” license tag rather than the real thing. Police found bomb parts in the car and Roeder subsequently spent time in jail.
Prosecutors in Wichita tried to elicit from Roeder testimony about his Freemen ties, but Judge Wilbert tightly controlled the parameters of the questions that could be asked. Such testimony would have undermined Roeder’s self-portrait as someone who was simply focused on “saving the babies.” Evidence that he had been involved with racist and anti-Semitic militia groups would have contradicted his story about finding Christ on the 700 Club. And it might have allowed the public to understand how a non-religious man who was once a happy go lucky type of guy turned into a stone cold killer.
In the end, such evidence was not necessary for the jury to quickly and completely convict him of murder and all the other attendant charges.
Sentencing will be on March 9.
Leonard Zeskind is the president of the Institute for Research & Education on Human Rights and author of the new book, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream.