WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Dr. George Tiller gathered with supporters in a tent outside his clinic on the morning of Jan. 22 eight years ago to tell them abortion rights remained “fragile,” even as they celebrated the anniversary of the Roe v. Wade court decision that legalized the procedure.
Defying protesters outside the clinic gates, the embattled Wichita doctor marked the event by giving low-income women free abortions. Some 38 were scheduled.
“We are sort of a huddled mass here together, a few of us arrayed against a vast enemy,” Tiller told about 65 supporters gathered that day. “But what are we armed with? We are armed with our attitude and our conviction that men and women are reproductively equal.”
On Friday, the 37th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, opening statements are set to begin in the trial of the man who has publicly confessed to killing Tiller. The Wichita clinic, one of the few in the nation that specialized in late-term abortions, closed after Tiller’s death.
Scott Roeder, 51, faces a charge of premeditated, first-degree murder for the May 31 shooting of Tiller as the doctor was serving as an usher at his church. The Kansas City, Mo., man is also charged with two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly threatening two ushers who tried to stop him from fleeing.
District Judge Warren Wilbert has repeatedly said the trial will not turn into a debate over abortion, warning Roeder’s lawyers that he intends to keep the case as a “criminal, first-degree murder trial.”
But the judge galvanized both sides of the abortion battle when he refused, on the eve of jury selection, to block the defense from trying to build a case for a conviction on a lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter.
They want to argue that Roeder believed Tiller’s killing was necessary to save unborn children. In Kansas, voluntary manslaughter is defined as “an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.”
If convicted of first-degree murder, Roeder faces a life sentence. Under state sentencing guidelines, a conviction for voluntary manslaughter for someone with as little criminal history as Roeder would bring a sentence closer to five years.
The jury selection process that ultimately whittled the panel down to eight men and six women took six days and occurred for the most part behind closed doors. The two alternate jurors will be designated later.
After six days of secret questioning of potential jurors, the court finally opened jury selection to the media on Thursday while turning away public spectators. Wilbert had initially closed all of the jury process until four news outlets, including The Associated Press, appealed to the Kansas Supreme Court. Only the final hour and a half of jury questioning was open to the media, and then only to those four news outlets.
Tiller championed abortion rights even after being shot in both arms by an activist in 1993. His clinic, heavily fortified after a bombing in 1986, was the target of both peaceful and violent protests. In 1991, a 45-day “Summer of Mercy” campaign organized by Operation Rescue drew thousands of anti-abortion protesters to Wichita for demonstrations and saw mass arrests.
In more recent years, anti-abortion activists had focused their attacks against Tiller within the legal system and political arena. Thousands of abortion opponents signed petitions forcing Sedgwick County to convene grand juries in 2006 and 2008 to investigate him, but both refused to indict him.
Two state attorneys general also tried in vain to prosecute him. Just two months before his death, a jury acquitted Tiller of misdemeanor charges accusing him of failing to get an independent second opinion for late abortions. The state’s medical board was investigating similar allegations at the time of his killing.