Lawyers prosecuting a man who gunned down a controversial pro-abortion doctor had to get through the first day of evidence without mentioning the word “abortion” in front of jurors.
On the 37th anniversary yesterday of the landmark US Supreme Court decision that legalised abortion, the prosecution instead began presenting a murder case at the court in Wichita, Kansas, focusing on emotional eyewitness testimony, recordings of frantic emergency calls and photos of Dr George Tiller’s body lying in a pool of blood in his church foyer.
DNA evidence linking Dr Tiller to confessed killer Scott Roeder, 51, forensic analysis of bullet casings and video of Roeder at local hotels are expected to follow in the prosecution case – but no mention of abortion.
What lawyers simply called the “a-word” when the jury was not present was the most contentious issue in court yesterday.
But its absence from the transcript could change when Roeder’s defence team has a chance to try to argue that he believed the killing on May 31 last year was justified to save unborn children.
District attorney Nola Foulston’s opening statement methodically outlined the events prosecutors hope will convince jurors to return a premeditated, first-degree murder verdict, rather than a lesser voluntary manslaughter conviction expected to be sought by the defence.
Roeder’s lawyers are keeping their defence strategy under wraps until the last possible minute, deferring their opening statement until they are ready to put their entire case.
At one point yesterday, District Judge Warren Wilbert stopped defence lawyer Mark Rudy using the word abortion when cross-examining a witness who had not first used it himself.
If the witness brings it up “that’s fair game, and you can explore it”, Judge Wilbert said.
Judge Wilbert has repeatedly said the trial will not turn into a battle over abortion, but he galvanised both sides of the debate when he refused to bar the defence from trying for a conviction on the lesser charge by arguing Roeder believed Dr Tiller’s killing would save unborn children.
Prosecutors displayed a graphic photo of Dr Tiller’s body, showing him lying on the ground wearing a green business suit and cowboy boots. Blood covered most of his face and had pooled under his head.
Dr Tiller’s wife Jeanne placed her head into her hands and covered her eyes as a police officer talked about photographs taken at the scene.
Officer Valerie Shirkey said Dr Tiller was “laying a pool of blood” and that a doctor who had been trying to help Tiller was also “covered in blood”.
Dr Tiller, whose Wichita clinic closed after his death, championed abortion rights even after being shot in both arms by an activist in 1993.
His clinic, heavily fortified after a bombing in 1986, was the target of both peaceful and violent protests.
In Kansas, voluntary manslaughter is defined as “an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force”.
The judge has said he will rule when the defence presents its evidence about how much jurors will be allowed to hear, telling lawyers he will limit it to Roeder’s beliefs at the time of the killing.
Roeder, from Kansas City, Missouri, faces a life sentence if convicted of first-degree murder. Under state sentencing guidelines, a conviction for voluntary manslaughter for someone with little criminal history would bring a sentence closer to five years.