By Carey Gillam
KANSAS CITY (Reuters) - The Kansas trial of an anti-abortion activist accused of gunning down one of the few late-term abortion providers in the United States is set to begin this week in a case that has galvanized people on both sides of the contentious debate over abortion.
Abortion rights supporters and abortion foes say the stakes are high after the trial judge said he would allow defendant Scott Roeder's lawyers to argue that his actions amounted to the lesser crime of voluntary manslaughter, not murder.
Roeder, 51, is charged with first-degree murder in the death of Dr. George Tiller, a 67-year-old abortion provider who was shot in the head while serving as an usher at his Wichita church in May 2009.
Court officials, who have beefed up security surrounding the trial in Wichita, said jury selection, which had been scheduled to begin on Monday was postponed until Wednesday due to unspecified "additional legal issues that have surfaced."
Roeder, from the Kansas City-area suburb of Merriam, Kansas, has admitted in news media interviews that he killed Tiller. But he has said his actions were justified in order to prevent Tiller from performing further abortions.
Sedgwick County District Judge Warren Wilbert surprised both sides last week when he said he would allow defense lawyers to argue Roeder's actions amounted to voluntary manslaughter, a charge that can be applied when a defendant acts with the belief that circumstances exist justifying deadly force.
A manslaughter conviction would bring a much lighter sentence -- possibly less than five years -- than the life sentence a premeditated murder conviction could bring.
Roeder also is charged with aggravated assault for allegedly threatening two other people at the church.
Tiller was long a target of anti-abortion activists and had been shot and wounded before. After his death, his family closed the clinic, one of only three in the United States that provided abortions after the 24th week of a woman's pregnancy.
Roeder's supporters, including members of the militant Army of God anti-abortion group, welcomed the possibility that the killing could be seen as manslaughter.
"This trial is very important to us," said Army of God spokesman the Rev. Donald Spitz, an anti-abortion activist who said many Roeder supporters will attend the trial.
"Pro-lifers have been convicted unjustly for years in the court systems because they have not been allowed to state why they took their actions against abortion mills or against baby-killing abortionists," Spitz said.
Abortion rights supporters said they feared anything less than a first-degree murder conviction would encourage further violence against abortion providers.
"We're greatly concerned. A voluntary manslaughter verdict would be catastrophic. It's like putting a target on the back of abortion providers," said Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, which supports abortion rights and was sending people to Wichita for the trial.
Nancy Northup, president of the Center for Reproductive Rights, added, "It is incredibly important that this trial show that the lives of doctors who perform necessary, legal services will be protected by the full force of the law."
(Editing by Will Dunham)