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George Tiller's Murderer May be Charged Only With "Voluntary Manslaughter:" What This Means for Reproductive Rights

A judge announced that Scott Roeder will have the opportunity to avoid a murder charge.
 
 
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I will write more about this later as time allows, but the judge in the Scott Roeder case — Roeder is the man who shot abortion provider George Tiller at Tiller’s church — has ruled that Roeder may present a case for voluntary manslaughter instead of murder. Voluntary manslaughter is a less serious crime than murder, and subject to softer penalties. This doesn’t mean that Roeder is only being charged with voluntary manslaughter; my best guess based on the judge’s comments here is that he doesn’t want this case to be overturned on appeal, and so he’s allowing the jury to consider voluntary manslaughter as a lesser-included offense. Which makes sense.

Except that there are, of course, bigger issues at play. The judge at least rejected Roeder’s proposed “necessity” defense, but a jury will still have the option of giving Roeder a lighter sentence if the defense makes the case that Roeder had an “unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.” If the jury does buy that defense — and you can bet that Roeder’s team will make the trial about Dr. Tiller and abortion — it lessens the disincentives for other would-be terrorists to take out abortion providers. The promoters of anti-choice violence themselves admit as much:

A man who runs a Web site supporting violence against abortion providers said in the wake of the judge’s decision that he has changed his mind about attending Roeder’s trial.

The Rev. Don Spitz of Chesapeake, Va., said he and other activists from the Army of God plan to observe the court proceedings quietly next week.

“I am flabbergasted, but in a good way,” Spitz said of the judge’s decision.

Spitz acknowledged that the possibility of a voluntary manslaughter defense may influence some people who in the past wouldn’t kill abortion providers because of the prospect of a sentence of death or life imprisonment. “It may increase the number of people who may be willing to take that risk,” he said.

Jill Filipovic is a New York-based freelance writer and a law student at NYU. More of her writing is available online at her blog, Feministe.

 
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