Judge “Leaves Door Open” For Biblical Defense as Tiller Murder Motive

Wendy Norris is an editor and investigative reporter in Denver, Colorado.  She covers the Rocky Mountain West and Plains States for RH Reality Check.

A Kansas judge curbed but did not disallow the use of a radical “Biblical defensive force” strategy at Scott Roeder’s murder trial next month.

Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert ruled Tuesday that Kansas law does not recognize the “necessity defense” — a legal claim that a defendant is justified in breaking the law to thwart a greater imminent threat. Roeder admitted to news reporters last month that he killed Wichita physician George Tiller May 31in the foyer of a church to prevent him from performing abortions.

The judge said allowing the personal beliefs of defendants to justify unlawful actions would “not only lead to chaos but would be tantamount to sanctioning anarchy.”

For months, the Army of God, a militant anti-abortion group linked to murders, clinic arsons and domestic terrorism, has egged Roeder on to claim Tiller’s death was Biblically justified.

However, that ultimate aim has not been entirely lost.

Wilbert said he would “leave the door open” for Roeder’s defense team to argue to jurors that his religious beliefs about abortion compelled him to act.

Wichita Eagle reporter Ron Sylvester, who attended the hearing and tweeted the proceedings, notes that could signal the defense could seek a conviction on lesser charges mitigated by Roeder’s extreme views. A voluntarily manslaughter verdict could result in a prison term of less than 10 years rather than life imprisonment for first-degree murder.

While the “necessity defense” is a legitimate secular legal strategy, Roeder’s motives are something altogether different.

The “defensive force” argument was originally penned by Army of God member Paul Hill and is rooted in a rambling manifesto based on a radical Christian Dominionist interpretation of the Bible.

The Army of God claims the Bible justifies “defensive force” to attack, maim or murder abortion providers. Christian theologians universally reject the strained paleo-conservative interpretation of meting out Earth-bound justice against imagined foes in the name of God. The tactic has never been allowed in court as a defense for clinic violence. Including for its own author.

Hill was convicted and put to death by the State of Florida for the 1994 murders of physician Dr. John Britton and clinic escort Jim Barrett and the wounding of Barrett’s wife, June, outside a Pensacola clinic.

In reaction to Roeder’s arrest, the Iowa Independent recently reported that Des Moines resident Dave Leach claims to have updated Hill’s “Defensive Action Statement.” The revised canon was signed by 21 anti-abortion militants, including three who are serving prison sentences. One of those signatories is Shelley Shannon, who was convicted of attempted murder for a 1993 shooting of Tiller and is in federal detention for subsequent arson and acid attacks at clinics in the Pacific Northwest.

Leach is credited with writing the Army of God bomb-making manual used in clinic ambushes by Shannon and others.

The pair and other Army of God members have been regularly corresponding with Roeder since his June arrest encouraging him to stake out the Biblical defense motive.

“Now, hopefully, the public can begin to hear about how essential this defense is to the Rule of Law in America,” he said. “Our everyday lives would become insane if the letter of every law were enforced even in situations where that would cause tragedy and death.”

Despite their initial hopes, the proposed defense was supposedly off the table, according to a Nov. 11 story in the Wichita Eagle.

“There’s no such thing as the necessity defense,” said Steve Osburn, head of the Sedgwick County Public Defender’s Office and Roeder’s lead counsel. “This is a fictional defense made up by these people.” It’s not a legal defense, either, Osburn said.  “There is nothing in the law of Kansas, or anywhere else, that allows this kind of defense,” Osburn said.

That outburst was contradicted two weeks later when Osburn later claimed he was simply disavowing the strategy in the media to confuse the prosecution about his defense planning.

Though Osburn’s courtroom kabuki theater got a bit more complex after the pretrial hearing. The defense team withdrew a motion requesting Tiller’s calendar following the judge’s denial of the necessity defense negating the need to prove the physician’s death prevented scheduled abortions.

In two other rulings Tuesday, the judge barred lawyers from dismissing potential jurors based on their views about religious or abortion.

Wilbert also refused to move the trial after Roeder’s court-appointed public defenders requested a change of venue arguing that their client cannot get a fair trial in a city scarred by decades of virulent anti-abortion protests. The defense motion claimed the ability to seat an impartial jury was constrained by press accounts of people who claimed to be close to Roeder were quoted in news stories “with inflammatory statements damning the defendant.”

The aggrieved friends and family excuse may be the least of the lawyers’ problems considering their client has been blabbing for weeks to any journalist with a stenographer’s notebook that he murdered Tiller.

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  • kathyc

    I think the headline for this article is misleading. The judge did not OK any particular defense. He ruled out the so called "necessity defense" and did not rule on any other issues. As he said, "the door is open" on other defense strategies, but he did not invite them to pass through that door. We should hope this trial is as fair and above the bar as possible. This is the most viable path to a conviction that will not be overtuned on technicalities. We should hope for a conviction on the highest possible crime and the harshest penalty for that crime. More providers will die if Roeder is ever again on the streets.

  • jodi-jacobson

    Saw your comment and I agree.


    We have changed the headline to reflect this.


    Thanks for pointing that out.

  • kathyc

    Thank you for your thoughtful response.

  • crowepps

    The judge said allowing the personal beliefs of defendants to justify unlawful actions would “not only lead to chaos but would be tantamount to sanctioning anarchy.”

    Ironic that those who style themselves as ‘promoting conservative values’ or ‘upholding tradition’ are doing so by promoting vigilantism and anarchy.

  • jenh

    Abortion is murder. What Roeder did in killing Tiller was also murder. I do not condone or attempt to justify what Roeder did. I want abortion in America to end. I do not want people running around shooting abortionists. I just want the killing to stop… all of it.

    I wish all of you here a happy Christmas, and I pray the peace of the Christ Child will reign in your hearts in 2010. Open your hearts to welcome the Infant King, and then open your hearts to welcome all infants.

    Women deserve better than abortion.

    Peace be with you.

  • cycles

    The judge said allowing the personal beliefs of defendants to justify unlawful actions would "not only lead to chaos but would be tantamount to sanctioning anarchy."

    I’m surprised the judge didn’t point out the connection of this line of thinking to hate crimes legislation. Under the law, strong personal beliefs that lead to assault or murder are actually prosecuted more harshly than crimes of sudden passion or crimes for material gain. Although abortion doctors are not covered specifically under hate crimes laws, they exist on the spectrum of people who are disproportionately targeted for who they are, and for their actions which are completely legal. The law says that when you hurt somebody based on your beliefs, the punishment should be bigger, not smaller.

  • mechashiva

    At this time I would like us all to join our e-hands in prayer, and thank our most merciful Lord, the Baby Jesus. 


    "Dear Lord Baby Jesus, or as our brothers to the south call you Jésus…we thank you so much for this bountiful harvest of Domino’s, KFC, and the always delicious Taco Bell. I just want to take time to say thank you for my family, My two beautiful, beautiful, handsome, striking sons, Walker, and Texas Ranger, or T.R., as we call him. And of course my red hot smokin’ wife, Carley, who is a stone cold fox, who if you would rate her ass on 100 it would easily be a 94. I also want to thank you for my best friend and teammate, Cal Naughton Jr, Who’s got my back no matter what.


    Dear Lord Baby Jesus, we also like to thank you for my wife’s father Chip, we hope that you can use your baby Jesus powers to heal him and his horrible leg. It smells terrible and the dogs are always bothering with it.


    Dear Tiny, Infant, Jesus… Look, I like the Christmas Jesus best, and I’m sayin’ grace. When you say grace, you can say it to Grownup Jesus or Teenage Jesus or Bearded Jesus or whoever you want.

    Dear Tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers with your tiny, little fat balled up fists. Look, I like the baby version the best, you hear me? I win the races and I get the money.


    Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, don’t even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent. We’d just like to thank you for all the races I’ve won and the $21.2 million, LOVE THAT MONEY! That I have accrued over this past season. Also due to a binding endorsement contract that stipulates I mention PowerAde at each grace, I just wanna say that PowerAde is delicious and it cools you off on a hot summer day and we look forward to PowerAde’s release of mystic mountain blueberry. Thank you, for all your power and your grace, Dear Baby God, Amen."

  • prochoiceferret

    Abortion is murder.

    No, it’s not, actually. This is a common misconception.

    I want abortion in America to end.

    Yeah, it’d be nice if unwanted pregnancies, ectopic pregnancies, severe congenital defects, rape, incest and any of hundreds of other reasons to have an abortion never happened again. I put that up there with world peace and pretty pink ponies for everyone who wants one. Unfortunately, this is reality. It’s not as nice a place as fantasy, but we’re kind of stuck here.

    I wish all of you here a happy Christmas, and I pray the peace of the Christ Child will reign in your hearts in 2010.

    The Muslims and other non-Christians on this board look on your Christmas wishes with… bemusement.

    Open your hearts to welcome the Infant King, and then open your hearts to welcome all infants.

    Gee, that’s really nice of you, to volunteer our time, treasure, and bodily resources to infants we may not necessarily want. How about "opening your heart" to welcome all the homeless people in your area? I’m sure they would love to have a nice, hot shower in your bathroom.

    Women deserve better than abortion.

    People deserve better than open-heart surgery, too, but that’s not a reason to deny them surgery if they need it.

    Peace be with you.

    Actually, your comment didn’t leave us feeling particularly peaceful. Annoyed is more like it.

  • prochoicegoth

    Abortion will never be illegal. They tried to get rid of abortions back in the day and guess what? They still occured, only they were dangerous and performed by the woman herself OR some back-alley butcher wanting to make a quick buck. You ought to watch the first episode of "If These Walls Could Talk" to see the reality of those dark days. Do you want that to happen again? For women who can’t afford to go across state lines to have to resort to butchering themselves? Do you want women to suffer and die? Is it all about the fetus for you, until the cord is cut?


    Merry Yule to you and I hope in 2010 the Goddess gives you compassion for your fellow female enough to allow them to choose whether or not they want to be a walking incubator. 

    It’s pro-choice or
    NO choice.

  • princess-rot

    Aye, if by "better" you mean "a better punishment".