Monday January 18, 2010

Catholic Judge Under Microscope in Trial of Tiller’s Killer

By James Tillman

WICHITA, KANSAS, January 18, 2009 ( — The judge handling the trial of Scott Roeder, the confessed killer of abortionist George Tiller, has come under intense scrutiny since he declined to block Roeder’s defense attorney from trying to build a case that Roeder is guilty of voluntary manslaughter, and not first degree murder.

Roeder is under trial for one count of first-degree murder in the May 31 slaying of Dr. George Tiller in his church, and for two counts of aggravated assault for brandishing a pistol at two ushers.

But Judge Warren Wilbert, who will handle the case, is a practicing Catholic and father of two who attends St. Thomas Aquinas church in Wichita; he has previously been a lay minister and president of the school board. In the most recent race for election, he was endorsed by Kansans for Life.

This background has invited the scrutiny of pro-abortion forces, who are worried that the judge may be overly sympathetic to Roeder’s motives.

However, Wilbert’s judicial record does not appear to paint a picture of a “pro-life” activist judge. According to the Associated Press, in 2005 he dismissed a public records lawsuit filed by Cheryl Sullenger, a policy advisor for the pro-life group Operation Rescue, in which she sought copies of 911 tapes for ambulance runs from Tiller’s abortion facility.

Similarly, Wilbert has more than once denied Roeder’s request to use the so-called “necessity defense,” which would argue that Roeder’s action was not a crime because it saved the lives of preborn babies.

The judge has also indicated that he wishes to keep the moral issue of abortion out of the case, as far as possible.

“This will not become a trial of the abortion issue,” he has said. “There are not going to be witnesses who will testify with graphic descriptions of abortion procedures, and revisit and argue all of the legally insufficient discussions and debates over the harm caused.”

Nevertheless, the judge’s decision not to block Roeder’s defense from arguing that Roeder was guilty of voluntary manslaughter, rather than first degree murder, has brought the ire of many groups upon him.

“Let there be no mistake, the rulings of Kansas Judge Warren Wilbert to allow evidence in support of a voluntary manslaughter verdict are being seen by extremists as a green light for those who would murder abortion providers,” said Katherine Spillar, Executive Vice President of the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Similarly, Kansas NOW has condemned “Judge Wilbert for his decision to allow a manslaughter defense in the trial of the murderer of Dr. George Tiller. Judge Wilbert’s decision sends the message that religious fanaticism can be considered a defense for murder.”

Others have said, however, Judge Wilbert is merely using standard procedure and permitting Roeder’s attorney to use legally acceptable means to defend him. Kansas law defines voluntary manslaughter as the “unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.” It is also called imperfect self-defense. A conviction of voluntary manslaughter could carry a sentence of about five years in prison, compared with life imprisonment for murder.

Nevertheless, the issue of whether Roeder could be convicted of voluntary manslaughter instead of murder will not be decided until the judge gives legal instructions to the jury, which will not occur until after evidence is presented.

See related coverage:

Trial of Abortionist George Tiller’s Killer Begins Wednesday