WICHITA, Kan. - The judge in the trial of a man accused of murdering an abortion doctor dealt the defense a severe setback yesterday, ruling that the jury cannot consider a lesser charge of manslaughter.
The ruling came hours after Scott Roeder took the stand in his defense and admitted killing Dr. George Tiller, saying he acted to save the lives of unborn children.
Roeder's attorneys had hoped to win conviction on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter, which requires them to show that their client had an unreasonable but honest belief that deadly force was justified. That charge carries a considerably lighter sentence than for murder.
Roeder testified that he considered elaborate schemes to stop the doctor, including chopping off his hands, crashing a car into him, or sneaking into his home to kill him.
But in the end, Roeder told jurors, the easiest way was to walk into Tiller's church, put a gun to the man's forehead, and pull the trigger.
Roeder calmly repeated his public admission of months ago - that he killed Tiller to save unborn children.
"Those children were in immediate danger if someone did not stop George Tiller," Roeder said as the jury watched attentively but without a hint of surprise.
"They were going to continue to die," he said. "The babies were going to continue to die."
Roeder has pleaded not guilty to murder in the attack at the Wichita church where Tiller was an usher. Witnesses have described how Roeder walked into the building's foyer on May 31 shortly after the service started, approached Tiller, and fired a single shot before fleeing.
After Roeder's testimony, District Judge Warren Wilbert ruled that the jury would not be permitted to consider the manslaughter charge because abortion, including late-term abortion, is legal in Kansas and because Tiller did not pose an imminent threat.
"There is no immediate danger in the back of a church," the judge said. He also ruled out a second-degree murder conviction, which does not involve premeditation, because it was clear Roeder planned the killing.
"It would be hard for a reasonable fact-finder to find anything other than the defendant formulating his belief and then planning on multiple occasions . . . to carry out his intention to [kill] Dr. Tiller," the judge said.
In a November interview with the Associated Press, Roeder admitted shooting Tiller, who was one of the few doctors in the country who perform late-term abortions.
Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, Mo., said he considered other ways of killing Tiller, including driving his car into Tiller's or shooting him with a shotgun. But he said he was concerned those approaches could hurt others.
"I did what I thought was needed to be done to protect the children," Roeder said. "I shot him."
Prosecutors were careful during the first few days of testimony to avoid the subject of abortion and to focus on the specifics of the shooting.
The judge said he did not want the trial to become a debate on abortion, but he said he would give Roeder a great deal of "latitude" when discussing his beliefs because they were integral to his defense.
Earlier yesterday, the judge barred former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline from testifying for the defense after listening to a preview of Kline's testimony without the jury present.
Kline investigated Tiller's clinic, Women's Health Care Services, in 2006 because he suspected Tiller was violating state laws pertaining to late-term abortion. The case was later dropped because of jurisdictional issues.
Wilbert said much of Kline's testimony would have amounted to "exactly what this court seeks to avoid . . . a referendum on abortion."