Law? What law?

BY LARRY LEVIN

If you kill someone in cold blood because you object on moral or political grounds to what they do, can you use your beliefs to skate on a murder charge?

That’s apparently what a Kansas judge is suggesting with a recent ruling in the trial of Scott Roder, the admitted killer of Dr. George Tiller, a physician who performed abortions. Roeder killed Tiller on May 31, 2009, while the latter was serving as an usher at his church.

Roeder was charged with first degree murder of Tiller and aggravated assault for pointing his gun at two other ushers after killing Tiller.

But Sedgwick County Judge Warren Wilbert allowed the defense to argue that Tiller’s killing be considered a voluntary manslaughter, because Roeder believed he was justified in killing Tiller to protect unborn children.

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Tiller was one of the few physicians who was performing late-term abortions in the United States. In March 2009, he was tried in Kansas on 19 misdemeanor charges. Kansas law criminalizes late-term abortions unless two independent doctors concur that the pregnant woman would be irreparably harmed as a result of giving birth. He was acquitted by a jury after 45 minutes of deliberation; then he was killed in May.

The definition of voluntary manslaughter in Kansas is killing with “an unreasonable but honest belief that circumstances existed that justified deadly force.” A conviction carries with it a potential jail term of about five years as opposed to the life imprisonment resulting from a first-degree murder charge.

The Associated Press reported the prosecution’s objection to allowing the argument on a lesser charge to proceed: “‘The State encourages this Court to not be the first to enable a defendant to justify premeditated murder because of an emotionally charged political belief,’ the prosecution wrote. ‘Such a ruling has far reaching consequences and would be contrary to Kansas law.'”

Far reaching consequences, indeed. If Judge Wilbert’s suggestion is adopted by other courts, then the rule of law means absolutely nothing.

Take, for instance, the Rev. Don Spitz, an extremist associated with the Army of God Web site on which is written the following: “Thank you Scott Roeder for stopping Babykilling abortionist George Tiller from murdering any more unborn children.”

According to the AP, “Spitz acknowledged that the possibility that Wilbert’s decision may influence some people who in the past wouldn’t kill abortion providers because they risked a sentence of death or life imprisonment. ‘It may increase the number of people who may be willing to take that risk,’ he said.”

So now what? Those in the anti-abortion movement perform a cost-benefit analysis to see if five years in jail is “worth it” to kill abortion providers?

But wait, it gets worse. Use the same logic that Judge Wilbert employed and extend it to pro-choice advocates. Wouldn’t someone who believes in the legality of abortions now be able to kill an extremist like Spitz and claim voluntary manslaughter because he or she reasonably believes that the extremist is going to kill an abortion physician? And then wouldn’t the anti-abortion extremist in turn be able to kill the pro-choice advocate in anticipation that he or she could potentially kill an extremist?

And of course the scope of Judge Wilbert’s inane ruling isn’t limited to abortion issues. Say someone believes the president is going to send men and women into battle, thus putting their lives at risk. Wouldn’t an assassination now simply be a case of voluntary manslaughter because the killer was trying to protect the lives of military personnel?

The point, of course, is that Judge Wilbert’s law means there is no law. We’re back in the days of the OK Corral, where duels, personal codes of honor and an offense to an individual’s morality ruled the day. It doesn’t matter what conduct a legislator or a jurist or an executive has proscribed – if you don’t like it, then just take the matter into your own hands. Every man, woman and child for themselves.

This approach by Judge Wilbert plays into the notion of letting religious communities seize control of matters that rightfully belong under the jurisdiction of civil courts. In fact, earlier this year we saw news coverage of how some in the Brooklyn untra-Orthdox Jewish community are no longer allowing religious courts and leaders to cover up claims of sexual abuse. Such efforts by any religious community or individual are anathema to a society which purports to treat its ciritzens fairly and according to a uniformly applicable set of laws.

If personal or group religious beliefs transcend the rule of law, we’re in big trouble. As a jurist, Judge Wilbert has taken an oath to uphold the principles of jurisprudence. We suggest to him and to other judges that they should take that obligation very seriously, lest we find outselves mired in Wild West anarchy.

Larry Levin is Publisher/CEO of the St. Louis Jewish Light.