Attorneys from the Department of Justice finished presenting their evidence to a jury Wednesday that a 2011 letter sent by anti-abortion activist Angel Dillard to Dr. Mila Means—which suggested that should Means begin performing abortions in Wichita, she’d be checking for bombs every day under her car—constituted a “true threat” to Means’ safety. After that, Dillard’s defense team had one job: Suddenly, immediately humanize their client.
But how do attorneys humanize a woman accused of threatening abortion providers, who testified that Dr. George Tiller’s murderer, Scott Roeder, is a friend of hers, and who stated specifically that she believes abortion, no matter the context, is always wrong?
You play her up as simple housewife and hope a jury of eight Wichitans believes Dillard’s story: that an over-aggressive federal government is stifling speech and political debate with which it disagrees.
Will it work? It’s hard to tell at this moment. As a witness, Dillard comes across as a typical small-Midwestern-town farmer—one who would rather tend to her flock of chickens and peacocks than debate abortion politics. And that was undoubtedly on purpose. Theresa Sidebotham, a Colorado Springs-based religious liberties attorney and part of Dillard’s defense team, questioned Dillard about her son with cerebral palsy, whom Dillard cared for until his death in 2001. She asked Dillard to speak about the restoration of her farm property, her Christian songwriting, her prison ministry. Dillard teared up when describing singing songs of forgiveness to women who had been in domestic violence situations prior to prison and spoke softly, specifically, and directly to Sidebotham.
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When the topic of abortion politics finally came up—which was a given, since Dillard faces civil charges for violating the Federal Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act because of that 2011 letter to Means—both Sidebotham and Dillard did everything they could to distance Dillard’s letter from the history and pattern of anti-choice violence rooted in her hometown of Wichita.
Dillard testified that she believes abortion is wrong in every context because it is a violation of “God’s law.” She also testified that while she would never condone an act of violence like the one her “friend” Roeder committed in murdering Wichita’s only abortion provider, she admired Roeder because he “was willing to give up his life” by going to prison for the larger cause of ending legal abortion. Dillard also admitted that her community supported Roeder. “Everyone I knew was thrilled we no longer had killing going on in Wichita,” Dillard said, without a hint of irony.
And as to whether or not Dillard ever intended to threaten Means by sending the letter promising thousands of people would be looking into Means’ background and potentially placing explosives under Means’ car, Dillard brushed the suggestion off.
“I know it sounded harsh, but we we’re talking about life and death,” testified Dillard. “I stood on the Bible and the First Amendment, but I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Translation: Dillard believes that the government is infringing on her religious freedom, and her right to free speech and religion, by punishing her for sending the letter to Means.
The Department of Justice, however, was having none of this image of Dillard as a Kansas homemaker being bullied by the Obama administration. Julie Abbate, a DOJ deputy chief, led the government’s cross-examination of Dillard. After moving the podium so that she was looking Dillard directly in the eyes for the entirety of her cross-examination, Abbate simply opened with, “Good afternoon, Mrs. Dillard. It’s been a while.”
From there, the niceties ended. Abbate meticulously went through Dillard’s testimony, erasing much of the image Sidebotham spent her time creating. Abbate questioned Dillard on her presence at Roeder’s trial, where she testified she first met and befriended Michael Bray, another anti-choice terrorist. She pressed Dillard on her purported prison ministry—which, Dillard admitted, was non-existent until Roeder’s conviction; for the first year of its existence, it “ministered” exclusively to Roeder. Dillard had earlier testified she was not really all that involved in the local anti-choice movement, but Abbate got Dillard to concede she would go to local abortion clinics and stand outside and pray, sometimes holding signs, and even participated in what she described as a “parade” with other activists where they sang and prayed outside a Wichita clinic.
All these activities, according to court testimony, took place prior to Dillard sending the letter to Means.
The trial proceedings finished for the day before Abbate got to conclude her cross-examination of Dillard. She will pick up with that first thing Thursday morning, and it will likely be as charged as Wednesday morning’s testimony. It is also likely the case will go to the jury then, which will begin deliberating on a verdict. Because this is a civil prosecution under FACE and not a criminal one, Dillard faces no jail time should the jury find her letter was a threat to Means and not protected free speech. Instead, she faces approximately $20,000 in damages as consequence.
“I didn’t have any plans for violence,” Dillard testified. “God lets us have the consequences of our actions as a judgment, but it doesn’t have anything to do with me.”
If the jury starts to deliberate the case on Thursday, it could return a verdict as soon as the end of the week.