(CN) - The court that sentenced Dr. George Tiller's killer to life in prison should not have applied a 50-year minimum sentence, the Kansas Supreme Court ruled.
Scott Roeder was 51 on May 31, 2009, when he approached Tiller in a Wichita church and shot the doctor point-blank in the head.
During his trial, Roeder admitted that he had been planning Tiller's murder for the last 16 years. The Christian convert said he believed killing Tiller was the only way to stop babies from dying.
Tiller, one of few doctors in the United States who performed late-term abortions, had already survived numerous attempts on his life. His clinic was bombed in 1986, but reopened within days. He was shot in each arm in 1993, but was back at work the next day.
After a jury convicted Roeder of first-degree murder and two counts of aggravated assault, the trial court applied a "hard 50 life sentence."
Defendants sentenced to life in prison are usually eligible for parole after 25 years, but Kansas requested a "hard 50" after finding that Roeder qualified for an enhanced minimum sentence.
The mostly unanimous Kansas Supreme Court vacated Roeder's sentence Friday based on recent precedent that deems it unconstitutional for imposition of a "hard 50 sentence based upon a judge's own preponderance-of-the-evidence determination that an aggravating factor existed."
It was the U.S. Supreme Court's 2013 decision in Alleyne v. U.S. that led the Kansas Supreme Court to set aside a "hard 50" sentence as unconstitutional in State v. Soto.
"In accord with Soto, Roeder's hard 50 sentence was unconstitutionally imposed by the district court in violation of Roeder's Sixth Amendment right to a jury trial," Justice Lee Johnson wrote for the court.
The ruling, which was unanimous except for Justice Nancy Moritz who did not participate, otherwise affirmed Roeder's convictions against his challenges on various issues including the court's refusal to order a change of venue.
In support of that claim, Roeder pointed out that Tiller's abortion practice was an old source of public controversy in the area and that Tiller's homicide became a massive media event. Indeed the Kansas City Star even printed an interview with Roeder before his trial in which in which he admitted to the killing and discussed his trial strategy.
For the appellate court, however, challenges of denied motions to change venue face "a steeply uphill battle." It said Roeder failed to show that the publicity prejudiced him to the degree that he could not receive a fair trial.
Indeed the controversial nature of abortion cut both ways during jury selection.
"A number of potential jurors participating in the individual voir dire had negative things to say about Dr. Tiller, suggesting that in some instances the publicity was detrimental to the state, rather than the defense," Justice Lee Johnson wrote for the court.
Roeder also failed to show that the court failed to instruct the jury on "voluntary manslaughter based upon an imperfect defense of others" - in other words, that Roeder killed to defend the unborn children whom the doctor's patients would abort.
On this point the Kansas Supreme Court noted that Tiller was performing legal abortions and that there was no threat of his harming an infant from the vestibule of his church during Sunday services.
Though there may be some support for the claim that the trial court "erred in failing to instruct the jury on second-degree murder," the court said the cumulative effect of any errors "did not prejudice Roeder to the point of denying him a fair trial."
In the same vein, the said some questionable comments by the prosecutor during the rebuttal portion of his closing arguments "were unequivocally harmless."
"In the abstract, one could question the prosecutor's reference to a 'community terrorized' or to the characterization of Roeder's cavalier attitude as '[sending] chills down the backs of conscientious people,'" the 51-page ruling states. "But, cutting to the bottom line, there is no possibility whatsoever that the relatively innocuous comments by the prosecutor in an emotionally charged trial had any effect on the trial's outcome given that the defendant not only admitted killing Dr. Tiller, but also essentially bragged about committing the crime."
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