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WICHITA, Kan. – An usher testified Monday that he watched the man accused of killing prominent abortion provider Dr. George Tiller approach the doctor in church, put a gun to his head and pull the trigger.
Gary Hoepner, who like Tiller volunteered as an usher at the Reformation Lutheran Church in Wichita, said he chased Scott Roeder after the May 31 slaying but backed off after Roeder threatened to shoot him and another usher.
During an hour of testimony, Hoepner described the chaotic scene as the single shot rang out.
“It was a loud, popping noise,” Hoepner testified. “Then George fell, and I repeated `Oh my God, Oh my God’ several times.”
During cross examination by defense attorney Mark Rudy, Hoepner testified that he had seen Roeder at the church before the day of the shooting, and that Roeder said “Lord forgive me,” when he threatened Hoepner.
Roeder, 51, has publicly admitted he killed Tiller but has pleaded not guilty to charges of first-degree murder and aggravated assault in the case. The Kansas City, Mo., man said in a court filing that the trial would be a “charade” if he were not allowed to argue that the killing was necessary to save “preborn babies” from abortion.
District Judge Warren Wilbert banned a so-called necessity defense, which would be used to argue Roeder should be acquitted, and insisted the trial would not turn into a battle over abortion.
But the judge galvanized both sides of the debate when he refused to bar the defense from trying for a conviction on the lesser charge of voluntary manslaughter by arguing Roeder believed Tiller’s killing would save unborn children.
Wilbert won’t rule on whether to let jurors consider the lesser charge until after the defense rests its case.
Monday marked the second day of testimony in the trial.
Security in and around the courthouse has been heavy; a bomb-sniffing dog has been brought in, and spectators must show photo identification and are not allowed to bring coats or purses into the courtroom.
Prosecutors have appeared determined to keep any mention of abortion out of what they portray as a simple case of murder. That led last Friday to what was likely the first of many skirmishes over the use of what attorneys are calling, outside the jury’s hearing, the “a-word.” The judge warned defense attorney Mark Rudy in cross-examining one witness that he should not use the word abortion unless the witness first used it himself.
Key to the government’s murder case will be presenting evidence of premeditation. Prosecutors said Roeder meticulously planned the killing, stalked the doctor at his church in Wichita, and practiced firing his newly purchased gun at his brother’s secluded home the day before the killing.
On Friday, the prosecution began presenting a murder case focused on emotional eyewitness testimony, recordings of frantic 911 calls and photos of Tiller’s body lying in a pool of blood in his church foyer.
DNA evidence linking Tiller to Roeder, forensic analyses of bullet casings and video of Roeder at local hotels are expected to follow – but no mention of abortion, at least for as long as they can avoid it.
Roeder’s public defenders have yet to make their opening statements, but are expected to try to build a case for a conviction of voluntary manslaughter. The judge has warned them that would be difficult because the facts indicate Tiller posed no immediate danger while acting as an usher in church.
In Kansas, voluntary manslaughter is defined as “an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.” Such a conviction for someone with little criminal history would bring a sentence closer to five years, compared to the life sentence Roeder faces if found guilty of first-degree murder.
Associated Press Writer Maria Sudekum Fisher contributed to this report.
Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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