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Prosecutors avoid saying abortion in trial over doctor's slaying

WICHITA, Kan. — On the 37th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, prosecutors who charged a man with killing one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers managed to get through the first day of testimony without mentioning the word abortion in front of jurors.

Instead, they tried to focus on the facts — a doctor gunned down in his church — rather than allow the trial to become a debate over abortion.

But what lawyers simply called the "a-word" when the jury was not present was the most contentious issue in court Friday. Prosecutors have said they do not even want abortion mentioned.

That could change in the coming days when the defense team for Scott Roeder has a chance to try to argue that he believed the killing of Dr. George Tiller was justified to save unborn children.

At one point Friday, the judge stopped the defense attorney from using the word "abortion" when cross-examining a witness who had not first used the word.

In other testimony, witnesses recalled the scene at a Wichita church on May 31, when Tiller was scheduled to serve as an usher.

Church member Kathy Wegner testified that she saw Tiller enter the fellowship hall and then heard a sound like a balloon popping. She saw a flash and watched Tiller "just fall flat on his back."

Wegner said the gunman ran out of the church, and another usher ran after him.

Roeder's defense team did not address the jury in an opening statement but would likely do so later in the trial, which is expected to take two weeks.

District Attorney Nola Foulston said jurors would hear several witness accounts of the shooting and see other evidence such as Roeder's bloodstained shoes and a police video of Roeder's arrest later that day.

Earlier Friday, District Judge Warren Wilbert denied a defense request to move the trial out of Wichita and a request from prosecutors to block a voluntary manslaughter defense.

The judge has repeatedly said the trial will not turn into a debate over abortion, warning Roeder's attorneys that he intends to keep the case as a "criminal, first-degree murder trial."

But the judge galvanized both sides of the abortion battle when he refused, on the eve of jury selection, to bar the defense from trying to build a case for a conviction on the lesser charge.

They want to argue that Roeder believed Tiller's killing was necessary to save unborn children. In Kansas, voluntary manslaughter is defined as "an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force."

If convicted of first-degree murder, the 51-year-old Roeder faces a life sentence. Under state sentencing guidelines, a conviction for voluntary manslaughter for someone with little criminal history would bring a sentence closer to five years.

Prosecutors avoid saying abortion in trial over doctor's slaying 01/22/10 [Last modified: Friday, January 22, 2010 10:37pm]
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