What the Roeder Guilty Verdict Means for Abortion Providers

In an unsurprising verdict, a Kansas jury found Scott Roeder guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of late-term abortion doctor George Tiller. The trial was a straightforward and short affair, with Roeder offering 37 minutes of testimony in which he admitted to purchasing a gun, taking target practice, and ultimately shooting Tiller, explaining the sense of "relief" he felt afterward. Roeder now faces life imprisonment with the possibility of parole at 25 years.

The most notable element of the trial was the wrangling over Roeder's pursuit of a voluntary manslaughter defense. A few weeks ago, Judge Warren Wilbert ruled that he would allow Roeder to present a voluntary manslaughter defense, where he could attempt to convince the jury that he acted on "an unreasonable but honest belief that the circumstance existed that justified deadly force." If Roeder had been successful in presenting such an argument, the minimum sentence would have dropped from life to less than five years. Abortion groups were outraged at the possibility of a reduced sentence for a man who admitted to killing an abortion doctor. Warren Hern, a late-term provider in Colorado, called it a "death sentence" for himself and his colleagues. As recently as Wednesday, the ACLU filed an amicus brief asking the judge not to tell the jury to consider voluntary manslaughter as a defense. In the end, though, Wilbert acquiesced, and the jury considered only the first-degree murder charge (alongside two charges of aggravated assault, for threatening two other ushers working at Tiller's church).

Still though, Roeder's heavier sentencing likely gave little comfort to abortion providers, particularly those who work in the second and third trimester. Harsh punishment for violence against abortion doctors has not proven a deterrent in preventing such crimes. Michael Griffin was sentenced to life in prison after murdering abortion provider David Gunn in 1993. The next abortion-provider murderer, Paul J. Hill, who killed a Florida provider in 1994, received lethal injection. But that did not prevent a wave of anti-abortion violence in the 1990s that left three clinic workers and one abortion provider dead. Roeder acknowledged that he had begun thinking about killing Tiller as early as 1993, and in great detail—he told the jury how he considered cutting off Tiller's hands with a sword or tracking him down at his house. The repeated life or death sentences of those who have murdered abortion providers apparently provided no deterrent. As long as there are extreme anti-abortion groups who praise Roeder as an "American hero," abortion providers will have to continue to see the threat of violence a part of the profession they chose.