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Mike Hutmacher/The Wichita Eagle/AP

Turnabout play

Abortion | At a hearing in Kansas, late-term abortionist George Tiller attempts to put the trial against him on trial

Issue: "Schock factor," Jan. 31, 2009

WICHITA, Kan.-It is in the nation's heartland that one of the world's leading abortionists practices his trade-Dr. George Tiller of Wichita, Kan., who claims responsibility for more than 60,000 "terminations of pregnancy." Charged with 19 criminal counts relating to late-term abortions, Tiller and his legal team put into practice this month the old adage that the best defense is a good offense.

Prosecutors allege that Tiller repeatedly broke a state law requiring a second, independent doctor to approve the medical necessity of a late-term abortion. But in a pre-trial hearing on the motion to dismiss charges, Tiller's attorneys sought to divert attention away from the evidence against their client and instead discredit the prosecution.

The result could have been an episode from a soap opera.

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Over two days, Jan. 6 and Jan. 7, reporters crowded into the jury gallery to learn details of a tawdry extramarital affair and winding political intrigue, along with accusations of manipulation and prosecutorial misconduct. In essence, the hearing before Sedgwick County District Judge Clark Owens functioned as a miniature trial-of the trial itself. Should the case against Tiller be permitted to proceed, or stopped in its tracks?

The case began in 2003 when Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline launched an investigation into alleged crimes of Kansas abortion doctors. Kline issued a 30-count criminal indictment against Tiller in Sedgwick County toward the end of 2006. That same year, Johnson County District Attorney Paul Morrison defeated Kline, with help from campaign donations from Tiller. As Morrison took over the case, Kline took over Morrison's old D.A. job.

Morrison filed reduced charges against Tiller. When a sex scandal forced Morrison to resign, new Attorney General Steve Six assigned Assistant Attorney General Barry Disney to the case.

Despite having three prosecutors of very different political stripes and abortion views pursue the case, Tiller's attorneys say the case against him is all about politics-and sex. "We have a defense team attempting to turn the judicial process into a circus," said state Rep. Lance Kinzer, an attorney and pro-life leader in the Kansas House, "and sadly it looks like they may be succeeding."

Calling Linda Carter as a witness, defense attorney Dan Monnat delved into the torrid details of her extramarital affair with Paul Morrison that started when she worked for him in the district attorney's office and continued after he became the attorney general while she remained in the D.A.'s office working for Kline. It was an on-again, off-again relationship, with Morrison professing his love for Carter one week and reneging on his pledge to leave his wife for her the next.

The defense alleged that Morrison was unduly and improperly influenced by his mistress to file the charges against Tiller. However, Carter said she never exerted influence on Morrison or persuaded him to do anything. In fact, when she asked Morrison if he was "going to do the right thing and charge Tiller," he stormed out of her apartment and expressed his contempt for Kline.

Attempting to further malign the prosecution, the defense accused Kline of selectively prosecuting Tiller for political purposes. Prosecutor Disney pointed out that Kline in fact prosecuted the state's other major providers of late-term abortion services, having brought charges against both Tiller and a Planned Parenthood facility in Johnson County. The assistant attorney general also reminded Judge Owens-himself a former district attorney-that prosecutors maintain discretion on which cases to file, and that there is a presumption of regularity to the charges when they do.

Finally, defense attorney Monnat argued that the prosecution has been poisoned by the nature of Kline's acquisition and handling of redacted patient records from Tiller's clinic. This though Kline has never been found to have acted illegally in doing so.

Judge Owens is expected to rule next month on the motion to dismiss the charges. If he decides in favor of the defense, Tiller appears ready to escape further prosecution for the foreseeable future: Phill Kline now teaches law at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va.; Paul Morrison left public life in disgrace and entered private practice; and current Attorney General Six is unlikely to file any additional charges.

If Judge Owens decides against the defense on the dismissal motion, George Tiller will finally stand trial, more than five years after he first became the subject of a criminal investigation. If convicted, Tiller could face prison. A more likely outcome, though, would be that the nation's most infamous abortionist would lose his license to practice medicine in the state, closing a bloody chapter in Kansas history.

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