The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sought to prove that anti-abortion activist Angel Dillard’s letter to a Kansas doctor posed a “true threat” in a U.S. District Court civil trial in Wichita, Kansas, on Tuesday.
Using news articles and letters sent to the letter’s recipient, Dr. Mila Means, DOJ trial attorney Richard Goemann argued that it was Dillard’s intent to intimidate and threaten the Wichita-based family doctor.
Based on court testimony, the letter, sent after knowledge of Means’ intent to become the state’s sole abortion provider was public, offered an image of what the doctor might face if she followed through on her plans and continued abortion care training.
The letter said people in the anti-choice movement would soon know where Means shops, drives, and lives.
“You will be checking under your car every day—because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it,” the letter said.
Means testified to the selected eight-person jury that Dillard said in the letter, “It’s not too late to change your mind,” and that a collective, of which Dillard was a member, would do anything they could to stop Means.
Dillard told the Associated Press in a 2009 interview that Roeder, in a single act, was able to accomplish what members of the anti-choice movement had not been able to do despite their many efforts. She was quoted as saying he “followed his convictions and I admire that.”
Although she had received anti-abortion letters before, some of which the DOJ introduced as evidence for comparison as to what constitutes a threat, Means said Dillard’s letter frightened her because it suggested murder was a consequence for providing abortion care.
“It sounded scary. It talked about potential bombs under my car,” Means told the court.
Upon learning about the letter, the DOJ in April 2011 filed a civil lawsuit against Dillard for violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The federal law, signed by former President Bill Clinton in 1994, prohibits threatening or otherwise interfering with access to abortion clinics or providers. Just a year prior to the law’s enactment, Rachel “Shelley” Shannon, an anti-choice terrorist who followed the Army of God Manual, an anti-abortion document shared among extremists, had attempted to murder Tiller.
In August 2013, after the DOJ filed the suit, a federal judge dismissed the DOJ’s claim and said Dillard’s letter constituted constitutionally protected speech.
The DOJ appealed that ruling shortly thereafter.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit issued an opinion in July 2015 saying a jury should be left to decide whether the letter constituted a “true threat,” bringing the case to the U.S. District Court in Wichita.
The DOJ is requesting a civil penalty of $15,000 and $5,000 in damages paid to Means.
Much of Tuesday’s court proceedings focused on jury selection. Some jurors were eliminated, including a man who identified himself as a friend of an attorney in the case, and a woman who said she couldn’t be objective about Dillard’s relationship with Roeder.
Dillard’s defense team, which includes Wichita attorney Craig Shultz and Theresa Sidebotham, founder of the Colorado-based Telios Law, alluded in court to evidence they might use when the case resumes Wednesday.
Sidebotham said Dillard’s letter did not constitute a threat and that lack of evidence was “a huge problem for the U.S.”
Throughout her opening statement, she told potential jurors violence was completely against Dillard’s moral compass and accused the DOJ of being “oversensitive” in how it defines a threat.
She characterized Dillard’s letter as “fairly critical” and “harsh,” but said it was never meant to be threatening. The “consequences” Dillard provide, Sidebotham said, were “simply a list of things to reflect on.”
Dillard’s defense went on to distance the Kansas woman from radical anti-choice activists, saying Dillard only occasionally protested and didn’t know much about “the radical abortion groups.” She also argued that Dillard’s comment about Roeder’s conviction had been taken out of context.
The court will resume the evidence hearings on Wednesday, with Dillard’s defense presenting their evidence to the jury.