January 13, 2010

There's been a disturbing twist in the trial of Scott Roeder, the man who walked into a church and shot Dr. George Tiller to death:

Jurors in the trial of the man accused of killing Wichita abortion doctor George Tiller could have the option of finding Scott Roeder guilty of voluntary manslaughter instead of first-degree murder, a judge said Friday.

The action by Judge Warren Wilbert surprised those on both sides of the abortion issue and could make the abortion debate more prominent at Roeder’s trial, which is scheduled to begin on Monday.

Wilbert said that based on Roeder’s statements to the media and a 104-page memorandum that Roeder filed in which he admitted killing Tiller but said he had a legal defense for doing so, it was his duty to instruct jurors on all “lesser-included offenses” established by the defense.

“It’s a very real possibility that there would be evidence that would require me to instruct the jury on voluntary manslaughter,” Wilbert said.

However, he added, “I’m giving counsel a heads-up. This will not become a trial on the bigger issue of abortion. It will be limited to Mr. Roeder’s beliefs and how he came to form those beliefs.”

As KC Star columnist Barb Shelley pointedly observes:

How does that work? If I've seen a loved one died from alcoholism, do I get to go in and shoot up a tavern, based on my unreasonable but honest belief that deadly force is warranted? Of course not. Society breaks down if everybody who fits that mindset is able to get away with murder. Or anybody, for that matter.

Leonard Zeskind observes that this is an ominous development in light of the setting for the trial:

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.

We'll be watching this trial closely as it develops.

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