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KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - An anti-abortion activist who admitted he gunned down one of America's few late-term abortion providers was convicted of first-degree murder on Friday after he testified he had to stop the doctor from performing more abortions.
Scott Roeder, 51, was convicted of first-degree murder and aggravated assault by a Wichita, Kansas, jury that deliberated for just over 30 minutes. The case attracted anti-abortion protesters from around the nation to support Roeder.
Abortion has been one of America's most contentious and divisive issues for decades, affecting everything from local and national elections to the selection of U.S. Supreme Court justices.
Roeder admitted he stalked and shot to death Dr. George Tiller, 67, on May 31 last year as Tiller attended church in Wichita, Kansas. He argued in court his actions were necessary to protect unborn babies.
"Abortions were being done every day," Roeder testified. "My honest belief was that if I didn't do something they would continue to die."
Roeder's sentencing was set for March 9. District Attorney Nola Foulston will seek a "hard 50" mandatory life sentence, under which Roeder will have to serve 50 years in prison before becoming eligible for parole.
Tiller was long a top target of anti-abortion activists and had been shot and wounded before. He was one of only a few U.S. physicians willing to perform abortions late in pregnancy.
The doctor's death intensified the abortion debate and the actions taken by people who want it to be illegal. Abortion was legalized in a landmark 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision.
"While this verdict will not bring back Dr. Tiller it was very important that justice was served," said Vicki Saporta, president of pro-abortion group the National Abortion Federation, speaking from the courthouse in Wichita.
"It was important for other abortion providers and it was important for ensuring the ability of women to obtain quality abortion care."
Anti-abortion activists had hoped the trial might result in a verdict of voluntary manslaughter, while abortion rights groups feared any verdict other than a first-degree murder conviction would encourage further violence against abortion providers.
Abortion rights supporters have called on federal authorities to press an investigation into a larger conspiracy by anti-abortion activists to commit violent acts against abortion providers.
Anti-abortion activists from around America, including the founder of the prominent anti-abortion group Operation Rescue Randall Terry, flocked to Wichita to defend Roeder's actions.
Some protesters held signs opposing abortion and supporting Roeder outside the courthouse and held press conferences referring to Tiller as a murderer.
"I'm extremely disappointed and even a little bit angry," said Reverend Donald Spitz, spokesman of the militant group Army of God. "I do not feel like he (Roeder) got a fair trial at all."
"I believe what he did was justified manslaughter to save those unborn children from the baby murderer Dr. Tiller," he added.
Spitz said he planned to visit Roeder daily in jail in the near future.
Other anti-abortion groups, however, distanced themselves from violence against abortion providers.
"There is no justification for this murder," said Ann Scheidler, vice president of the Pro-Life Action League, which had been trying to shut down Dr. Tiller's operations via the courts prior to his death. "The vast majority of pro-life activists are peaceful, law-abiding people."
"Mr. Roeder's actions were very selfish and un-Christian and we have to pay the price for them," she added.
Editing by David Storey and Philip Barbara