Roeder, voluntary manslaughter and the future of anti-abortion terrorism

I will write more about this later as time allows, but the judge in the Scott Roeder case — Roeder is the man who shot abortion provider George Tiller at Tiller’s church — has ruled that Roeder may present a case for voluntary manslaughter instead of murder. Voluntary manslaughter is a less serious crime than murder, and subject to softer penalties. This doesn’t mean that Roeder is only being charged with voluntary manslaughter; my best guess based on the judge’s comments here is that he doesn’t want this case to be overturned on appeal, and so he’s allowing the jury to consider voluntary manslaughter as a lesser-included offense. Which makes sense.

Except that there are, of course, bigger issues at play. The judge at least rejected Roeder’s proposed “necessity” defense, but a jury will still have the option of giving Roeder a lighter sentence if the defense makes the case that Roeder had an “unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.” If the jury does buy that defense — and you can bet that Roeder’s team will make the trial about Dr. Tiller and abortion — it lessens the disincentives for other would-be terrorists to take out abortion providers. The promoters of anti-choice violence themselves admit as much:

A man who runs a Web site supporting violence against abortion providers said in the wake of the judge’s decision that he has changed his mind about attending Roeder’s trial.

The Rev. Don Spitz of Chesapeake, Va., said he and other activists from the Army of God plan to observe the court proceedings quietly next week.

“I am flabbergasted, but in a good way,” Spitz said of the judge’s decision.

Spitz acknowledged that the possibility of a voluntary manslaughter defense may influence some people who in the past wouldn’t kill abortion providers because of the prospect of a sentence of death or life imprisonment. “It may increase the number of people who may be willing to take that risk,” he said.

That isn’t to say that the judge’s reasoning isn’t legally sound; I haven’t read all the details, so I can’t really opine on that. But this is one of those situations where the law butts up against real-life dangers and, right or wrong, this defense may have dire consequences.

I hope the jury has the sense to convict Roeder for what he did: He killed Dr. Tiller in cold blood, after carefully planning the murder. I’m increasingly losing confidence in that outcome.


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34 comments for “Roeder, voluntary manslaughter and the future of anti-abortion terrorism

  1. January 12, 2010 at 3:54 pm

    I expect an expansion of anti-choice terrorist attacks, whatever happens in this trial. My question is whether the President (who I frankly see as very much a fairweather friend on reproductive freedom issues) will stand up to the terrorists. When the bombs start going off and there are more Tillers, will the FBI raid their organizations, surveil their networks, infiltrate their organizations and build cases against their leaders? I’m guessing no.

  2. FashionablyEvil
    January 12, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    YIKES. Is there really a group of people who are only deterred from murdering abortion providers by the possibility of a murder conviction as opposed to a manslaughter conviction??

  3. January 12, 2010 at 4:36 pm

    Bwuh?

    Voluntary manslaughter just sounds like a less disturbing name for, I dunno, murder. Just sayin’.

    Sometimes peole scare me.

  4. Politicalguineapig
    January 12, 2010 at 6:28 pm

    Fashionably Evil: Yes, there are. And I’m actually surprised Dr. Carhart’s still alive- I hope he keeps on kicking, but there are a lot of people out to get him.
    It says something about our country that I’m surprised this went to trial. I hope Roeder gets life in prison for murder, but that’s not realistic. Frankly he deserves to get run over by the karma train. And the judge- he can’t possibly be this stupid, right?
    (I’d plump for the death penalty, but we have enough problems with martyrs already.)

  5. Evrybdy44
    January 12, 2010 at 8:42 pm

    When I read the article i could feel this lump in my chest. It was awful. I don’t have the words to describe how ridiculous and horrible this judges’ ruling is. The harm it can do is so far reaching and heartbreaking to me. It makes me sad.
    Stuff like this and Stupak. It just feels like abortion rights are going backwards in alot of ways.

  6. Politicalguineapig
    January 12, 2010 at 11:03 pm

    The main problem is that you can’t fix stupid.People, especially Americans enjoy being stupid, and a whole lot of people just love having their pastors/Bible think for them. If only we could misplace the South and Utah, we’d have a lot less anti-choicers.
    (Not to say that all anti-choicers are from those places, they’re just mass produced in those regions.)

  7. January 13, 2010 at 3:57 am

    I agree very much with the points raised in the post and the comments that follow. However, I am disturbed by the flagrant use of the word terrorist. I think that Roeder is a murder, a psychopath and he committed a specific act of terror. However, brandishing the word about is not useful when our government currently uses the word to label anything it doesn’t like. Most startling are the laws that are currently prosecuting animal rights activist as terrorist. With new laws enacted after 911, once a social movement is officially labeled “terrorist” by the government, anyone suspected of being involved with the movement no longer is protected by laws of due process for things such as wire tapping or limits on how long they can be held without being charges. So far only left movements, namely earth liberation and animal rights, have been persecuted in this way. This is a bit silly considering that anti-choice groups have psychos like Roeder in them while the left groups I mentioned have never been found to have cause physical harm to anyone. Even so, I don’t think anti-choicers should be wantonly called terrorists either since the majority of the movement doesn’t kill people. Though I think their movement is dangerous, misguided, pathetically short-sighted and sexist, I still think it is dangerous to play into the terrorism fear mongering so prevalent today. This allows legitimate social movements to be labeled as terrorism just because we disagree with them.
    I know this is a diversion from the prosecution of Dr.Tiller’s murderer. I do not mean to devalue that conversation in any way by bringing up this point, but I do feel it is an important point to be addressed in our movement.

  8. piny
    January 13, 2010 at 5:33 am

    It’s like “ripped from the headlines” in reverse.

    I can’t imagine this being appropriate, either. A vigorous defense is one thing, but arguing that a committed pro-life activist could reasonably believe he had the right to murder a doctor who provided abortions? No. Roeder knew he was committing murder.

  9. Sheelzebub
    January 13, 2010 at 8:35 am

    Clinicians are targeted for harassment, assault, and murder, and it has a chilling effect on the number of people who are willing to provide reproductive health services. Staff and patients are stalked, threatened, and intimidated (and sometimes injured or killed in shootings or bombings) as a way to scare people away from working for a clinic or getting reproductive health care.

    What other word is there for people who do this besides terrorist?

  10. January 13, 2010 at 8:43 am

    vegina,

    When you’ve got a movement that repeatedly produces and supports murderers, bombers, and arsonists, you’ve got terrorists. Their only aim is to intimidate people and shut down access to legal procedures through fear of violent reprisal. At the very least, the government should be going after them on racketeering charges (Lawyers, correct me. Whichever charge it is that would apply to trying to stop people from accessing or conducting legal procedures).

  11. William
    January 13, 2010 at 9:45 am

    Hey, Vegina, if you want to talk about being disturbed by language why don’t you go ahead and turn that critical lens on yourself before you go after others for calling people who attempt to terrorize others into political compliance terrorists. You’re misusing “psychopath,” and I simply can’t imagine a serious discourse in which the term “psycho” would be appropriate.

  12. Blue Jean
    January 13, 2010 at 10:34 am

    How on earth does “involuntary manslaughter” fit into Roeder’s case?

    “Oh, yeah, your Honor, I just happened to take my loaded gun into a crowded church (as one is wont to do). The safety accidentally came off, and while I was adjusting it, Dr. Tiller jumped in front of my gun several times. I was so upset about him hurting himself that I decided to take a quick jog outside, so I was running when the police arrived.”

  13. libdevil
    January 13, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Voluntary, Blue Jean. He knew he was killing the doctor, but thought he was justified, even though he legally wasn’t. That’s the argument he’s making.

  14. January 13, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    However, brandishing the word about is not useful when our government currently uses the word to label anything it doesn’t like.

    This is true. Rather than use the word “terrorist” to refer only to a member of an organised movement whose policies and actions are geared to spreading terror, who commit violence against people and property in pursuit of their goals, the US government has indeed modified the word to mean “anyone who does anything we don’t like”.

    Makes you wonder why the government doesn’t refer to the pro-life movement as a terrorist movement, doesn’t it? Clearly, the pro-life movement is not among the things “government doesn’t like”.

  15. Steve-o
    January 13, 2010 at 1:14 pm

    “That isn’t to say that the judge’s reasoning isn’t legally sound;…”

    As someone with ten years experience as a criminal prosecutor, I can say I believe his reasoning was sound and his decision was appropriate. This is a “slam dunk” M1 and the court want’s to avoid as many appeal issues as possible. This is not a case anyone want to take to trial twice. Also, when you look at the courts other statements it’s pretty clear that the judge is saying “OK Mr. PD, you can submit the instructions and argue your defense, but I’m not going to allow you to turn this into an anti-choice circus/crusade.” Just my two cents.

  16. Blue Jean
    January 13, 2010 at 1:22 pm

    I stand corrected, libdevil. Thanks!

    This opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities, doesn’t it? Got a neighbor you don’t like? Shoot him and claim you were protecting the invisible grass Martians, whom your neighbor was thoughtlessly slaughtering with his lawnmower. Have a grudge against an old high school nemesis? Grab your gun and say “I had to do it, your Honor. She murdered all my precious hopes and dreams!” That makes at least as much sense as saving the babeez, and it’s a lot more creative too.

  17. Evrybdy44
    January 13, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    Of all the things about this article and everything to continue commenting on. The use of the word terrorist. . . really? That’s what bothers you about this?????

  18. January 13, 2010 at 2:19 pm

    The judge’s reasoning is sound. While the antis see this as an opening (which is being helped by the media and feminist organizations), it’s simply closing the possibility of a loophole. At the end of the trial, I’m sure we’ll see that the lesser included charge is not an option for Roeder which will suck the wind right out of those sails. Kansas statutes and laws are clear: the threat must be “imminent” and must be “in the heat of passion”.

    http://roederwatch.blogspot.com/2010/01/dont-panic-and-todays-hearing.html

  19. libdevil
    January 13, 2010 at 2:43 pm

    @16 – Yep, I was thinking the same thing. Most people will make the rational choice that there’s nobody they dislike enough to spend the rest of their life in jail. But just 5 years because you had an ‘honest but unreasonable’ belief that you needed to do it? That’s more in the realm of possibility. Of course, the honest part is in there – you might have trouble persuading a jury that you thought your neighbor was slaughtering invisible grass Martians, but you might well be able to come up with something plausible enough. “I thought he was a terrorist, your honor. I even called the cops and they didn’t do anything!” (Because, ya know, he wasn’t and you made it all up to have an excuse to shoot him.) Kinda scary. I think (IANAL) what this is supposed to cover is something like mistaking an innocent situation for a threat – you see a guy in the park with a gun running toward you, and you shoot him, not realizing that he’s just some idiot playing paintball in an inappropriate place. Heck, depending on exact circumstance, that might not even qualify as an ‘unreasonable’ belief that you were justified.

  20. January 13, 2010 at 2:45 pm

    Egnu Cledge: I think you are right. There are individuals in the anti-choice movement who commit acts of terror. However, I do not associate them with the pro-life movement as a whole, regardless how much I dislike the movement.
    William: Thanks for calling me out on the use of “psychopath” as a term. Nothing I had thought of before. I appreciate when others highlight the way in which my language might create oppression or have latent effects of which I am not cognizant. That is precisely why I bring up this issue. The government HAS used the application of the word terrorist to suppress social movements on the left. If we reaffirm this by doing it to movements on the right we affirm this behavior and begin sliding down a very slippery slope.
    Evrybdy44: I think you are right, this is not the most important part of this post. Most important is the murder of Dr. Tiller and the danger abortion provers face on a daily basis. Ruling that an anti-choice orientation lessens the effect of murder by calling it something less than murder can have absolutely disastrous effects. However, it is only in moments like this that this rhetoric pops up. As a feminist blog it is important to talk amongst ourselves about a variety of issues, rhetoric included. If this is not a topic that interests anyone and that people think is too distracting, readers can decline to post on it and the conversation will end.

  21. Reba
    January 13, 2010 at 3:18 pm

    How does this differ from the “some folks just need killin'” defense?

  22. William
    January 13, 2010 at 3:49 pm

    William: Thanks for calling me out on the use of “psychopath” as a term. Nothing I had thought of before. I appreciate when others highlight the way in which my language might create oppression or have latent effects of which I am not cognizant. That is precisely why I bring up this issue. The government HAS used the application of the word terrorist to suppress social movements on the left. If we reaffirm this by doing it to movements on the right we affirm this behavior and begin sliding down a very slippery slope.

    I’m glad you appreciate being called on language you didn’t realize was problematic. I wasn’t reading any malice into it, but “psychopath” is one of those labels a lot of people like to brandish without really knowing what it means. In that way, it is used in much the same fashion as the use of a word like “terrorist” that you critiqued.

    That said, there are some groups which can legitimately be labeled as terrorist organizations. I think that if you’re going to use a label like that you have to show two things:
    1) Specific individuals must have shown a willingness to use violence in order to curtail the rights of others both directly through their violent action and indirectly through the sense of fear and insecurity that these acts of violence cause and
    2) These individuals exist within the context of a larger movement which, while not necessarily overtly violent, contributes to a sense that violence is an acceptable or rational means of political action and engages in the demonizaton and dehumanization of their opponents.

    In the United States, over the last 30 or so years, you have a pretty small list of groups that fit that criteria. A tiny contingent within the animal rights/environmental movement (which the broader movement has done a very good job of denouncing), the militia movement, the Klan, and the forced birth movement. Of those groups, the one which has been most active and aggressive in recent history has been the forced birth movement. They intentionally engage in violence and intimidation. The fact that they believe they do it because of imaginary babies and the will of a stolen deity doesn’t change anything.

  23. Emily
    January 13, 2010 at 4:00 pm

    Totally agree with Steve-O @15.

    Preventing a defendant from putting his chosen defense in front of a jury, preventing him from even presenting evidence in support of such a claim, preventing him from doing so before the trial has even started, carries a VERY significant risk of reversal on appeal. A defendant has a constitutional right to present a defense.

    However, the Judge can still say at the end of all the evidence that he’s not putting the voluntary manslaughter charge to the jury. He can say it’s not supported by the evidence, and it’s not going to the jury. The voluntary manslaughter defense is going to require that he show there was an imminent threat to the life of someone, and he’s not going to be able to show that when he killed Dr. Tiller at church of all places, miles away from any abortion. The judge is just being careful. I doubt he even gets a voluntary manslaughter instruction at the end of the trial.

  24. Another Laurie
    January 13, 2010 at 4:01 pm

    This is kind of scary and I am not sure I agree that the judge’s reasoning was legally sound. There needs to be evidence that Roeder had an honest belief that deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent, unlawful death or great bodily injury to another person.

    I can’t imagine how Roeder could have an honest belief that any abortion was imminent, given that Dr. Tiller was attending a church service. Any abortion he was going to perform would not occur until hours later, probably not until the next day at the earliest. Of course, it is possible that Kansas law has a different understanding of the term “imminent” but it seems to me that imminent ought to mean something that is about to happen at any moment. Otherwise, the law should expect you to take some non-deadly measure to prevent the harm you foresee — call the police, get an injunction, whatever.

    This voluntary manslaughter instruction also seems to presume the legal personhood of the fetus, which I am not at all sure is legally sound here. Don’t know what Kansas law says about that. But if Kansas law says a fetus is not a person, I don’t think a mistaken belief in the personhood of the fetus flies here. You don’t get to claim a mistaken belief about the law, just a mistaken belief about facts.

    It may well be that the judge was trying to close off Roeder’s avenues for appeal. But I really hate it when judges distort the law in order to foreclose appeal. That distortion could influence the jury to give this guy a break.

    Now, again, maybe the judge’s ruling is somehow sound under Kansas law, but I find that hard to believe. Situations in which homicide is excusable, or at least considered a lesser offense than murder, are intended to be extremely narrow — as in “I honestly believed he was going to shoot my best friend at any moment and the only way to stop him was to shoot him first.” This doesn’t meet that standard and I have a hard time believing that Kansas has some loosey-goosey exceptions to murder one.

  25. Another Laurie
    January 13, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Oops, thanks to Carolyn Marie Fugit for the link to Roeder watch. Now I get it, I think. If I understand correctly, the judge just said, he will rule on a case by case basis as the trial progresses whether a particular piece of evidence is admissible to support a voluntary manslaughter conviction in place of murder one. He has not promised a voluntary manslaughter instruction, right?

    That makes much more sense and is quite sound. I don’t see how Roeder is going to get the instruction because he will have trouble with a number of elements.

  26. January 13, 2010 at 4:52 pm

    I wish the nutjobs who perpretrate these sorts of crimes would have the courage of their convictions to just say, “Yeah, I did it” and plead guilty. Trying to provide any defense of your actions seems to make you not just a vile murderer, but also a hypocritical cheater.

  27. Politicalguineapig
    January 13, 2010 at 5:37 pm

    A L: If it were any place other than a red state, I’m sure there’d be no ‘loosey-goosey exception’ to Dr. Tiller’s murder. However since it is a red state, I doubt the guy’ll spend a year in jail. I wish I could be more optimistic.

  28. January 13, 2010 at 5:56 pm

    The U.S. government has stretched the definition of “terrorist” to encompass virtually anything it doesn’t like. That said, Roeder is a terrorist in every meaningful sense. Doctor shooters and clinic bombers are trying to achieve a political end by leveraging highly publicized acts of violence. They want to control doctors and patients through terror. They hope the attacks and trials will galvanize popular support for their movement. That’s no different than any other terrorist group.

  29. Dan
    January 14, 2010 at 10:52 am

    “This is kind of scary and I am not sure I agree that the judge’s reasoning was legally sound. There needs to be evidence that Roeder had an honest belief that deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent, unlawful death or great bodily injury to another person.”

    Bear in mind that this is pre-trial. No evidence has yet been presented, so for the judge to, without any evidence, preclude the possibility of Roeder presenting the voluntary manslaughter defense would be a reversible error.

    Also, in the “don’t panic” article linked above, there’s mention of another case in which the defense was allowed to present evidence for voluntary manslaughter, but because they did not meet their burden of showing an imminent threat, the jury did not get an instruction on voluntary manslaughter. So, this is really just wrangling over what can and can’t be presented during trial, and it would be wrong to limit Roeder’s right to present his defense.

  30. January 14, 2010 at 2:13 pm

    @27 – Yes, Kansas is a red state, but our juries have found *multiple times* that Dr. Tiller committed no crimes, even when there were self-described pro-life people on the jury.

    @25 – Yes, Judge Wilbert has said he will decide on a witness-by-witness basis if evidence is admissible. For example, former Attorney General Phill Kline has been asked to testify. But until the defense calls him, there is no telling if Judge Wilbert will allow his testimoney. But he cannot, as a matter of law, rule beforehand that a defense cannot be given.

  31. January 14, 2010 at 8:18 pm

    I wish the nutjobs who perpretrate these sorts of crimes would have the courage of their convictions to just say, “Yeah, I did it” and plead guilty. Trying to provide any defense of your actions seems to make you not just a vile murderer, but also a hypocritical cheater.

    I think your understanding of the mindset is off. Roeder didn’t just kill Tiller so that Tiller would be dead, he killed Tiller to send a message. Part of that message happens at trial, as his attorney makes statements on the courthouse steps and white guys go on cable news to talk about “the national discussion” that such a case creates. The death of the doctor is almost a formality, something that in itself is far less important to the killer (and his handlers) than the opportunity it creates to put on their vile little dog and pony show.

  32. Politicalguineapig
    January 15, 2010 at 10:21 am

    Just because Tiller wasn’t doing anything that was technically illegal didn’t stop them from prosecuting, right? I’m sure the only reason he didn’t wind up in prison was that they couldn’t find an appropriate current law that he was violating. As for Roeder- a trial doesn’t mean a conviction. If they can find anyway to let him walk, they will.

  33. Bagelsan
    January 15, 2010 at 7:20 pm

    I think that Roeder is a murder, a psychopath and he committed a specific act of terror. However, brandishing the word about is not useful when our government currently uses the word to label anything it doesn’t like.

    (I know it’s been addressed somewhat already, but) What could be more useful than using a word appropriately? And sorry, but it’s not just the government who has a problem with some “animal rights” groups — the scientists who are stalked, harassed and assaulted along with their families (including young children) don’t have a particular fondness for so-called “activists” either. When you use violence and terror as part of a systematic campaign to scare people into particular behaviors you’re a terrorist, even if your targets are like, super totally mean to baby bunnies and stuff.

    I’m so tired of the progressive types who swing too far the other way, and decide that they hate anything the “Man” likes or whatever. Just because the government misuses the word “terrorist” sometimes doesn’t mean that *no one* they frown on is really a terrorist. Sometimes they get it right (albeit, often like a stopped clock gets it right.) And it certainly doesn’t mean that terrorists shouldn’t get called what they are.

  34. William
    January 16, 2010 at 2:34 pm

    Just because the government misuses the word “terrorist” sometimes doesn’t mean that *no one* they frown on is really a terrorist. Sometimes they get it right (albeit, often like a stopped clock gets it right.) And it certainly doesn’t mean that terrorists shouldn’t get called what they are.

    Excellent point. I’d also add that once you decided to not use a word appropriately because someone else is using it inappropriately you have effectively ceded the word to the use you were originally so offended by. If we don’t call actual terrorists “terrorists” then the only use the word “terrorist” gets is the use that the government is so fond of tossing around.

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