Friday, January 29, 2010

37 Minutes

It took a jury in Kansas 37 minutes to convict the murderer of Dr. George Tiller of 1st degree murder, a crime which carries a life sentence.  Tiller, you may recall, was a doctor who performed late-term abortions.  He was murdered in church last summer.  The gunman also was convicted of assault with a deadly weapon for threatening two other people at the church.

The question of who shot Dr. Tiller was never in any doubt -- the shooter admitted it frequently to the news media and in court filings.  The purpose of the trial was not to determine whether the shooter had done the shooting, but rather whether it was a crime, and if so which one.  The gunman first proposed a "necessity defense," saying that he did what he did to protect unborn children.  The judge refused this argument on the grounds that, by law, fetuses do not enjoy legal protection and hence defending them is not a necessity.  The perpetrator then mounted the argument that he in good faith believed he was acting out of necessity, and that therefore this constituted manslaughter.  The judge eventually instructed the jury not to consider manslaughter but only 1st degree murder.  Deliberations were very, very brief.

I have been trying all week to figure out what this trial must have felt like to George Tiller's family.  Families of murder victims often talk about "getting justice for" their loved one, or "making sure the truth comes out."  The arrest means the bad guy is off the street, and the conviction is punishment not only for the murder but for trying to get out of taking responsibility for the murder.

This case, however, is different.  This shooter didn't try to lie his way out of the situation.  He didn't claim he hadn't done it.  The truth didn't need to come out -- it was already out.  The trial was a question of law, not of fact.  I suppose had the killer not been convicted it would have represented and absence of justice for Dr. Tiller, but the fact of the conviction hardly seems a great victory for the justice system.  Not if deliberations only took 37 minutes.  It was too easy.

I wonder if this doesn't create another set of issues for the Tiller family to process.  In some sense, the fact that the shooter was so proud and so open about what he did makes dealing with this death harder, not easier.  Convicting him and sending him to prison isn't a deterrent to those who think as he does -- they still believe what they are doing is right, just as he does.  It sends no significant "message" that the killer will ever really hear.  He will not and cannot be made to have remorse for what he did.  There is no satisfaction in saying, "See, you couldn't get away with it!" to someone who didn't even try to.

George Tiller is dead.  His wife has lost a husband and his children have lost a father.  The man who killed him and his supporters are dancing on Dr. Tiller's grave.  The fact that the shooter is doing so in prison doesn't make his loss any easier, or his behavior any less painful for the people this murder left behind.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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