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WICHITA, Kan. (AP) – Witnesses described the scene at a church when an abortion doctor was shot and killed, telling jurors in the trial of the man charged with murder about the popping sound before Dr. George Tiller fell to the ground and how police found him lying there.
Testimony began Friday, the 37th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion.
Scott Roeder, 51, is accused of shooting Tiller, who specialized in late-term abortions. The Kansas City, Mo., man told The Associated Press in November that he killed Tiller to protect unborn children. Roeder also faces two charges of aggravated assault for allegedly threatening two church ushers who tried to stop him from fleeing. He has pleaded not guilty.
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.
Church members were gathering in the fellowship hall the morning of May 31, with Tiller was scheduled to serve as an usher, Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston told the jury of eight men and six women.
“Then unexpectedly, a sound was heard, like a popping of a balloon,” she said.
Kathy Wegner tearfully described how moments after she greeted Tiller as he came into church she heard a popping sound and saw him “just fall flat on his back.”
On her call to 911, she told the dispatcher the shooter was about 6 feet tall, balding and was wearing a white shirt.
Prosecutors also displayed a graphic photo of Tiller, showing him lying on the ground wearing a green business suit and cowboy boots. Blood covered most of his face and pooled under his head.
Tiller’s wife, Jeanne, placed her head into her hands and covered her eyes as a police officer testified about photographs taken at the scene.
Officer Valerie Shirkey testified that Tiller was “laying a pool of blood” and that a doctor who had been trying to help Tiller was also “covered in blood.”
Before opening statements began, District Judge Warren Wilbert denied a defense motion to move the trial out of Wichita and a motion from prosecutors to not allow defense lawyers to seek a lesser charge.
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 the 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 he has would bring a sentence closer to five years.
Jury selection in the case occurred for the most part behind closed doors. 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. Eight men and six women were chosen. Which two are alternates will be designated later.
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.