Instead of moving forward with the trial of Scott Roeder, the man accused of murdering Dr. George Tiller, prosecutors filed a motion seeking to limit the legal arguments presented by the defense as Roeder seeks conviction of a lesser charge. Roeder has admitted, on multiple occasions and to multiple people, that he in fact shot Dr. Tiller as Tiller left church and he is currently facing first degree murder charges as a result. However, Roeder has pled “not guilty” to those charges, choosing instead to use the trial as a venue for attacking abortion providers and to promote the cause of violence as a means of challenging abortion services.
Roeder’s first attempt to evade responsibility for his actions was rebuffed by Judge Warren Wilbert who rejected Roeder’s “necessity” defense. Roeder wanted to argue, essentially, that he had to shoot and kill Tiller to save unborn babies. However, the law does not recognize necessity as a defense to legal actions, and there is absolutely no evidence that Dr. Tiller performed illegal abortions. Therefore the judge rightly ruled against Roeder’s attempted defense.
But Roeder does not give up that easily. He has also asked the judge to consider allowing evidence to support a voluntary manslaughter conviction–a charge that carries a far more lenient punishment and which would give Roeder just the political forum he is seeking. If the judge rules in Roeder’s favor then Roeder could be convicted if the jurors concluded that Roeder had an “unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.”
Understandably the prosecutors are not pleased by this maneuvering, hence the last minute motion to limit the scope of the defense. According to prosecutors, voluntary manslaughter should not be considered an available option for killings involving premeditation, and their evidence shows ample premeditation by Roeder.
The danger in allowing this kind of defense on these kinds of facts is pretty clear. Any anti-abortion zealot arguably holds an honest but unreasonable belief that eliminating doctors who perform abortions will eliminate abortions. Furthermore, while some of the more mainstream anti-choice groups have tried to distance themselves from Roeder, others have embraced Roeder as a kind of political martyr, and used Roeder as a means to promote what they call a “Defensive Action Statement”, or a public claim that violence against abortion doctors is justified.
Allowing Roeder to present evidence to support a voluntary manslaughter charge would open the door to the jury considering not whether Roeder killed Dr. Tiller–he’s admitted he did and prosecutors have plenty of eye witnesses to the murder–but why Roeder killed Dr. Tiller. That means sending the to the jury evidence examining the broader practice of abortion and in particular evidence of third trimester abortions since Dr. Tiller was one of only a few providers to perform such services.
For now the trial is delayed until Wednesday, when a ruling on the prosecution’s motion is expected. In the meantime, pro-choice and anti-choice activists around the country wait to see if this case remains a murder prosecution or becomes transformed into a political circus with potentially deadly results.
photo courtesy of Gideon Tsang via Flickr