Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Scott Roeder Murder Trial

The first day of Scott Roeder's murder trial introduced us to courtroom decorum and evidence that had not yet been discussed in the media, a preview of what to expect. Friends and supporters of Scott Roeder sat only a few feet from the family of Dr. George Tiller.

Before the trial began, Judge Warren Wilbert reminded everyone in the gallery to behave. We could not make audible noises – no grunts or moans or cheers – and non-verbal cues – facial expressions or body movements – that could influence the jury. If anyone disobeyed, they would be made to leave. He could even hold them in contempt of court. Not everyone was pleased by this. They had been waving to Roeder as he entered the room, and he had been smiling back at them. Some of Roeder's supporters would struggle with this order for proper decorum throughout the day.

Judge Wilbert heard two motions, already brought before the court. The prosecution requested, once again, that a defense for voluntary manslaughter not be allowed. District Attorney Nola Foulston described it as "a wolf in sheep's clothing," a backdoor for the necessity defense. Judge Wilbert reminds the court and the public that the defense does not need to provide any evidence and is presumed innocent. He cannot rule out evidence before he hears it. He denied their motion "at this time," allowing them to bring objections on specific evidence later in the trial. The defense once again asks for a change of venue after recognizing they accepted the jury that has yet to be sworn in. The judge once again denies their request. The trial will be held in Wichita.

After the jury is sworn in, Foulston gives her opening statement. She reminds the jury that she is not presenting evidence, only what she believes the evidence will show. On the morning of May 31, 2009, Scott Roeder put a gun to George Tiller's head and shot him. 911 received the first call shortly after 10:02 am. A couple minutes later, another call gave dispatch a description of the car and a plate number. And at 10:13 am, Dr. Tiller was pronounced dead.

Roeder had stayed overnight at a hotel in Wichita, more than three hours from where he lived. He stayed at a different one the week before. When he was pulled over, officers found shoes in his car that had Dr. Tiller's blood splattered on them. At his home in Missouri, the FBI found a box for a gun, a calendar with May 30 and 31 highlighted, a church bulletin from Reformation Lutheran Church from August of 2008, and an ammunition receipt. The day before, he went to his brother's in Topeka, about an hour west of Kansas City, and had some shooting practice. The FBI found several shell casings, one of which was the same brand as the one found near Dr. Tiller's body in Wichita. The gun has still not been found.

The defense did not offer an opening statement at this time, and the first witness was called. Diane Gage is Director of Emergency Communications. We hear the first 911 call. The woman on the line, Kathy Wegner, was distraught, telling 911 that Dr. Tiller had been shot in church and the shooter had left. Gage walked through the times of the calls to 911 and to emergency services. The first officer arrived at 10:07 Sunday morning and the last one left after 7 Monday morning.

Wegner takes the stand and describes that morning. She is quite matter-of-fact until she talks about the shooting and seeing Dr. Tiller on the ground. She made the first call to 911. From the business office, she could see others gathering around Dr. Tiller. She heard his wife, Jeanne, scream. We are shown a picture taken that morning, Dr. Tiller laying many feet away. A Roeder supporter from Texas begins to sway, beaming with joy at the image of Dr. Tiller's body. Security warned her to sit back and not smile or she would have to leave. She begrudgingly complied. Meanwhile, Mrs. Tiller and their family look away.

Two Wichita police officers describe the call and their arrival at the church, showing more gruesome pictures. The last witness for the day is Dr. Paul Ryding, a veterinarian specializing in equine medicine. He tried to resuscitate Dr. Tiller. He remembered seeing Roeder towards the end of 2008. He remembered Roeder did not participate in the worship service, and when he tried to engage Roeder later, Roeder was defensive, his conversation fragmented. Public Defender Mark Rudy tried to make Ryding say he was on the lookout for strangers because of Dr. Tiller's field of medicine, a line of questioning he used during the preliminary hearing. Ryding worked hard not to go there. Rudy misunderstood part of Ryding's testimony and started to say the reason Ryding was suspicious of Roeder was because of abortion. Judge Wilbert asked the jury to leave while the record was read back. Judge Wilbert offered Rudy the benefit of the doubt that he simply mis-heard the testimony. He said the line of questioning would not be allowed unless the witness opened the door. "But the door is not open," he stated. After the jury came back, Rudy once again tried to get Ryding to say Dr. Tiller was killed because of his practice. Judge Wilbert did not allow it. As he had said before, this trial will not be about abortion.

With less than an hour left in the day, Judge Wilbert called the day to an end reminding the jury to keep an open mind through the weekend. We leave the courtroom one day down, several more to go.

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