The Wichita district court room remained virtually empty today, with rows of seats behind the defense table sitting mostly vacant during the preliminary hearing for Scott Roeder, accused of murdering Dr. George Tiller on Sunday May 31. Judging from the testimony given by three men who served as ushers at the Reformation Lutheran Church on that day, the case looks fairly open and shut.
Gary Hoepner, a member of the church for 52 years, testified that prior to the Sunday morning service he was chatting with Tiller about donuts, when he saw a man shoot the doctor point blank in the head. The killer turned around and ran out the door with Hoepner following him. The gun was a .22 caliber pistol.
Keith Martin tailed Roeder to his car, and was standing about fifteen feet away when Roeder turned and told him to "move." After Martin stayed put, Roeder pointed a gun at him and said, "I will shoot you." Martin got out of the way, but threw a cup of coffee at the car as Roeder was speeding away. Martin's act of defiance showed his mettle, which was also in evidence during cross examination when he bristled at attempts by Roeder's court appointed attorney to impugn Tiller's reputation.
Thornton Anderson was coming into church a little late when someone yelled out, "get the license plate number." Anderson, a whiz with numbers, did just that, providing the key piece of evidence that led sheriff's officers in Johnson County, Kansas to arrest Roeder later in the day. Roeder's attorneys did not even cross examine testimony by the Sedgwick County coroner and the Wichita chief of homicide detectives; there was just no wiggle room in the evidence as it was presented.
Several pieces of interesting detail surfaced during the day. Roeder had attended the Wichita church -- about 180 miles from his home in Merriam, Kansas -- several different times in the months prior to the shooting. He was apparently stalking Tiller, waiting for a chance to shoot the doctor while he served as an usher. In addition, there was testimony about the repeated protest and harassment of the Reformation Lutheran Church over the past two decades since Operation Rescue's so-called Summer of Mercy in 1991. Hundreds of anti-choice, pro-life activists on pickets lines, deliberate disruptions of religious services from within the sanctuary, and a bald attempt to steal the church's sacraments during a ceremony. If these activists say they are theologically motivated to "protect the unborn," they obviously showed no respect for the religious observances of these Lutherans.
Scott Roeder, wearing a greenish suit with a red tie, sat impassive and stone-faced throughout the hearing, flinching only a little when Gary Hoepner identified him from the stand. He has served time in prison before, in the 1996 and 1998, after being convicted on explosives charges that were later thrown out on appeal. He has expressed a certain level of resignation towards the long years in prison ahead of him, and he has started talking with Judy Thomas of The Kansas City Star, an investigative reporter who has written most of the ground-breaking news on this case.
The tax protestors, militiamen, and the fervid Christian patriots with whom Roeder has associated over the years have remained largely out of the public eye. Their fate still remains unknown; and that is not an open and shut case. For now, Scott Roeder's trial for murder is set for September 21.