WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — On the 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, prosecutors who charged a man with killing one of the nation’s few late-term abortion providers managed to get through the first day of testimony without mentioning the word abortion in front of jurors.
Instead, they tried to focus on the facts — a doctor gunned down in his church — rather than allow the trial to become a debate over abortion.
But what lawyers simply called the “a-word” when the jury was not present was the most contentious issue in court Friday. Prosecutors have said they do not even want abortion mentioned.
That could change in the coming days when Scott Roeder’s defense team has a chance to try to argue that he believed the killing was justified to save unborn children.
At one point on Friday, the judge stopped the defense attorney from using the word abortion when cross-examining a witness who had not first used the word.
In other testimony, witnesses recalled the scene at a Wichita church on May 31, when Dr. George Tiller was scheduled to serve as an usher.
Church member Kathy Wegner testified that she saw Tiller enter the fellowship hall and then heard a sound like a balloon popping. She saw a flash and watched Tiller “just fall flat on his back.”
Wegner said the gunman ran out of the church, and another usher ran after him.
Prosecutors also played a recording of the 911 call placed by Wegner.
“I felt like time just stopped,” Wegner said. She told the dispatcher the shooter was about 6 feet tall, balding and wearing a white shirt.
Roeder’s defense team did not address the jury in an opening statement, but would likely do so later in the trial, which is expected to take two weeks.
The photo of Tiller after he was shot showed the doctor lying on his side, with much of his face obscured by blood. A large puddle of blood had pooled under his head.
Tiller’s wife, Jeanne, placed her head into her hands and covered her eyes as a police officer testified about the photographs.
District Attorney Nola Foulston said jurors would hear several witness accounts of the shooting and see other evidence such as Roeder’s bloodstained shoes and a police video of Roeder’s arrest later that day.
Earlier Friday, District Judge Warren Wilbert denied a defense request to move the trial out of Wichita and a request from prosecutors to block a voluntary manslaughter defense.
The judge 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 bar the defense from trying to build a case for a conviction on the lesser charge.
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, the 51-year-old Roeder faces a life sentence. Under state sentencing guidelines, a conviction for voluntary manslaughter for someone with little criminal history would bring a sentence closer to five years.
Roeder has publicly confessed to shooting Roeder, telling The Associated Press in November that he killed Tiller to protect unborn children.
Melanie Wilson, associate professor of law at the University of Kansas, said the judge probably left open the possibility of a voluntary manslaughter defense because “there is so much at stake in a defendant’s criminal case,” and Roeder’s attorneys could produce some evidence to support a conviction on the lesser offense.
Because Roeder has confessed, “what are his other options? It’s not as if he can say, ‘It wasn’t me,'” Wilson said.
But prosecutors still have to prove each element of the case because Roeder’s confession may never be presented to the jury.
Tiller, whose Wichita clinic closed after his death, championed abortion rights even after being shot in both arms by an activist in 1993. The 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 he was never indicted.
Associated Press Writer Maria Sudekum Fisher contributed to this report.