WICHITA, Kan. — An anti-abortion activist pleaded not guilty Tuesday to opening fire on late-term abortion provider George Tiller after a witness gave chilling testimony that he saw the man suspected of being the shooter point a gun at the Kansas doctor's head before pulling the trigger.
Scott Roeder, 51, also is accused of threatening two ushers who tried to stop him at Tiller's church during the May 31 shooting that reignited passions in one of the nation's fiercest social debates.
Roeder, dressed in a jacket and tie but shackled at his ankles, pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder and aggravated assault charges after witnesses described seeing him shoot Tiller and speed away from the Wichita church. Roeder's public defender entered the plea on Roeder's behalf, and the Kansas City man did not speak during the hearing.
A judge ordered Roeder held on $20 million bond and set a trial date in Sedgwick County District Court for Sept. 21. If convicted, Roeder is likely to face life in prison. Prosecutors have said they will not pursue the death penalty, and Roeder would be eligible for parole after 25 years.
Tiller had been the target of relentless protests at his Wichita clinic, where he practiced as one of the nation's few providers of late-term abortions. He was shot in both arms by an anti-abortion activist in 1993.
For weeks, Roeder has refused to discuss his alleged role in Tiller's death, advocating in general terms for justifiable homicide — which he has repeatedly said is an acceptable action to protect "unborn children."
In rambling phone and jailhouse interviews since his arrest, Roeder has said he would be pleased if others took action to stop abortion by any means necessary.
"Violence is not wrong in all situations, so if it takes that — then if it is done righteously — then, if it's done, it is OK," Roeder has said.
Roeder's attorneys did not offer any evidence or make closing statements in court on Tuesday.
After the hearing, defense attorney Steve Osburn declined to comment, saying only that his client "is speaking enough for himself." Roeder's other attorney, Mark Rudy, quipped, "And he will probably be in touch."
During Tuesday's hearing, an usher at the Wichita church, Gary Hoepner, testified that he and Tiller were chatting in the church foyer when a man walked through the door, put a gun to Tiller's head and shot him. Hoepner identified the man as Roeder.
Hoepner said he wasn't sure if the weapon used to kill Tiller was real until he saw him fall to the ground. He said he followed the shooter out of the church but stopped after the perpetrator warned him.
"'I've got a gun and I'll shoot you,'" Hoepner recalled the gunman saying. "I believed him, and I stopped."
During cross-examination, Osburn asked Hoepner if he told police he heard the gunman say something along the line of "Lord, forgive me." Hoepner said he did.
Another usher, Keith Martin, testified that he chased the gunman into the church parking lot, where the gunman threatened to shoot him before driving away. Martin also identified the shooter as Roeder.
"He said 'Move.' I didn't move. He pulled out his gun and said, 'I'll shoot you,'" Martin said. He then moved.
A doctor who did the autopsy testified that Tiller died from a single shot from a gun held to the right side of his forehead. The bullet lodged at the back of his skull, and a police lieutenant testified that a single .22-caliber shell casing was found near Tiller's body.
Unlike his peers, Tiller embraced a high-profile life even after being wounded in 1993. His clinic, heavily fortified after a bombing in 1986, became the target of both peaceful and violent protests. In 1991, a 45-day "Summer of Mercy" campaign organized by Operation Rescue drew thousands of abortion-rights opponents to Wichita.
After Tiller's death, his family said they would permanently shut the clinic's doors. The facility's signage has been taken down, and a tall privacy fence of solid boards surrounds the building.