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Saturday, January 23, 2010

Was George Tillman's Murder "Voluntary Manslaughter"?

During my drive into work yesterday, I was listening to a story on NPR that turned out to be quite interesting. It was a story about the murder of Wichita abortion provider, George Tiller. The story talked about a possible defense tactic being considered by the admitted murderer, Scott Roeder. Scott wants to produce evidence that would allow him to avoid a conviction on first degree murder charges that carries a penalty of life in prison. Instead, if he got his way, he could be convicted of voluntary manslaughter that carries a penalty of just 55 months.
George TillerGeorge Tiller

Roeder, 51, of Kansas City, Mo., is charged with first-degree murder for shooting Dr. George Tiller on May 31 as he served as an usher at his church in Wichita, Kan. Roeder is also charged with two counts of aggravated assault for allegedly pointing a gun at two ushers who tried to stop him after the shooting.

Roeder has admitted to reporters and in a court filing that he killed Tiller to save "unborn children."
Scott RoederScott Roeder

On Wednesday, a Kansas Circuit judge ruled that Scott Roeder could present a voluntary manslaughter defense. The judge's decision means that Roeder—who has been charged with first-degree murder—will be able to present additional evidence that, in a straightforward murder case, would have been barred from the courtroom.

In order to create a voluntary manslaughter defense, Roeder must show that he had "unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force." To be convicted of voluntary manslaughter, Roeder must have believed his act to be "necessary to defend … a third person against such other's imminent use of unlawful force." This means Roeder has to demonstrate not one, but four things. First, that there was a threat to a third person. Second, that the threat was imminent. Third, that imminent threat was the result of an unlawful act. And, fourth, that he honestly believed all of this.

Before I go on, I want to make sure I explain that I am mostly an apolitical person who does not have strong views one way or another on the abortion issue. I think abortion is never going to be an issue that is resolved to the satisfaction of all people in our lifetimes. But the NPR item got me thinking about the issue of "voluntary manslaughter" in general.

Leaving aside the politics of the issue, let us look at the voluntary manslaughter defense, as defined by Kansas law. Scott Roeder must prove that he believed his act to be necessary to defend unborn children against imminent harm from George Tiller's use of unlawful force. The most important words in the previous sentence, as far as I am concerned, are the words "imminent" and "unlawful". There are legal scholars who have questioned whether unborn babies are persons (no court has ever ruled that they are until now), but for now, I am going to ignore that.

George Tiller was killed nowhere near his clinic, leave alone while attempting to perform an abortion. He was an usher at his church when he was gunned down. What he was doing when he was killed can hardly be considered to cause or threaten to cause "imminent" harm to unborn children. Similarly, if George Tiller had been a back-alley abortion provider who operated illegally to perform abortions that were not legal, then he could have been considered as using "unlawful" force. But George Tiller, by all accounts, operated within the law, and practiced a completely legal and lawful occupation.

Now, if the definition of what is lawful and what is unlawful, or what is imminent and what is not, is to be left up to each individual defendant in their defence of whatever actions they take against other people, there is no question that we will face nothing but complete chaos and anarchy.

Consider, for instance, the case of a truck driver, or a person who works at an automobile assembly plant. Your activities, either directly or indirectly, cause emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is widely accepted and believed to cause climate change. And climate change is predicted to cause more floods and famines, more powerful hurricanes and sea-level changes that will submerge many low-lying areas of the world, among other things. As you can imagine, these effects of climate change could very well exact a very real human toll in terms of many hundreds or thousands of lives lost to these natural disasters resulting from climate change.

Now, who among us does not contribute to the emission of carbon dioxide either directly or indirectly? In fact, most people contribute both directly and indirectly. Most of us drive to work, heat our homes, use electrical appliances, and do countless other things in our daily lives that lead directly to carbon dioxide emissions (if nothing else, we breathe). In addition, many of us are employed in industries that contribute to carbon dioxide emissions, whether that be automobile manufacturing, travel and tourism, shipping and trucking, restaurants, utilities, etc., etc.

By Scott Roeder's logic, any environmentalist would then be able to murder any of us, and claim a "necessity" defense. Most judges would laugh such a defendant out of court because it would be completely baseless. And they would be right because the victims were engaged in completely legal and lawful activities, and any harm to others that results from their actions is but collateral damage that results from a legal occupation. Moreover, nobody was going to die immediately or imminently because of the victim's activities. But would such a defence be so baseless if a precedent is established by the Wichita court in this case?

The court has 3 choices in this case, as I see it:

  1. Rule this defence inadmissible in this case
  2. Rule that George Tiller's actions and occupation were unlawful (which would open a new can of worms), and that his acting as an usher at a church caused or threatened imminent harm (I don't even want to think about the consequences of this!)
  3. Or declare open season for anybody on pretty much anybody.

I think the court should take a step back from the brink here rather than taking a step down this slippery slope. All indications are that this is an open and shut first degree murder case. The defendant shot the victim dead in public, in front of numerous witnesses. He then admitted openly that he did indeed commit the murder. The only other defence I see in this case is a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. And I have to admit that in the case of Scott Roeder, that defence might indeed work . . .

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