WICHITA, Kan.—A jury took less than 40 minutes Friday to find Scott Roeder guilty of first-degree murder in the shooting of abortion provider George Tiller in a church here last May.
Mr. Roeder sat motionless, staring ahead, as the verdict was read in a Sedgwick County courtroom under heavy security.
The jury also convicted Mr. Roeder, of Kansas City, Mo., on two counts of aggravated assault for threatening two witnesses with a gun as they chased him out of the church moments after the shooting last May 31.
The murder conviction carries a mandatory sentence of life in prison, though under Kansas law, parole is possible. Mr. Roeder, 51 years old, will be sentenced in March.
Dr. Tiller was one of the few doctors in the country who performed third-trimester abortions. His clinic, shuttered after his death, was the site of repeated antiabortion protests.
Defense attorney Mark Rudy acknowledged in his closing statement Friday that there was no question his client had killed Dr. Tiller and had been planning to do so for some time. But he argued that his client had pressed a handgun to Dr. Tiller's forehead out of a conviction that shooting the physician would save lives, preventing "more carnage on the unborn"—and he suggested that such passion mitigated the act, making it less than murder.
"The state…has proved that Scott Roeder killed George Tiller. But only you, collectively, can determine if he murdered George Tiller," Mr. Rudy told the jury of five women and seven men. He then compared his client to Martin Luther King Jr. and other heroes who fought injustice around the world, saying: "We celebrate individuals who stood up and made the world a better place."
Mr. Rudy asked the jurors to show courage in their deliberations and told them: "No defendant can be convicted based on his convictions."
But Judge Warren Wilbert ruled Thursday evening that the jury could not consider lesser charges; its only choice was to convict or acquit on first-degree murder. Mr. Roeder's lawyers had argued that their client's actions might better be described as "voluntary manslaughter," which Kansas law defines as using deadly force in the honest, even if unreasonable, belief that doing so is necessary to protect others from an imminent threat of unlawful violence.
Judge Wilbert said that didn't apply in this case, because Dr. Tiller posed no imminent threat to anyone as he stood in his church, and because his abortion practice was legal.
Mr. Rudy, the defense attorney, said in a news conference after the verdict, that he felt "helpless and hopeless" after the judge's ruling. "We knew we were in trouble," he said.
Mr. Rudy said his client plans to appeal the judge's decision to limit the jury to only two options—a first-degree murder conviction or outright acquittal.
In rebuttal to the defense's statements, prosecutor Kim Parker called Mr. Roeder not a hero, but a coward, who feigned piousness as he sat in Reformation Lutheran Church that May morning, stalking Dr. Tiller "with a murderous heart." She told the jury no man had the right to take the law into his own hands.
Mr. Roeder's "testimony was delivered very matter-of-factly," another prosecutor, Ann Swegle, told the jury, reminding them that he recounted stopping for a pizza after shooting Dr. Tiller.
"But its contents were chillingly horrific," she said. "And he was totally remorseless."
Dr. Tiller's widow, Jeanne, and other family members have attended the trial daily, often leaning against one another for support. Supporters of Mr. Roeder have also filled the gallery. One has parked a van covered with photos of aborted fetuses outside the courthouse.
Nola Foulston, the Sedgwick County district attorney, said her office worked hard to make sure the trial didn't become a referendum on abortion: "It was about the defendant's choice, not a woman's choice."
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