Anti-choice activist Angel Dillard did not intend to intimidate a Kansas physician with a 2011 letter warning that the doctor would be looking under her car every day for bombs, an eight-person jury decided in U.S. District Court on Friday.
The verdict followed about six hours of deliberation over the course of two days, concluding a four-day trial in Wichita, Kansas, that commenced Tuesday.
The case began when the Department of Justice (DOJ) filed a civil lawsuit against Dillard in April 2011, saying that her letter to Dr. Mila Means violated the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act. The federal law, passed in 1994, prohibits threats against abortion providers or interference with access to abortion clinics.
Means had been training to offer abortion care at her Wichita practice when she received the letter, nearly two years after the murder of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller by Dillard’s associate, Scott Roeder, in 2009.
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In the letter, Dillard told the physician that should she continue with her training, she would be looking under her car daily for bombs and thousands of people in the anti-choice movement would be checking into her background and learning about her daily habits.
Dillard also wrote that they would do everything they could to stop Means from carrying out her plans.
The court required jurors deciding the case to make a unanimous decision rather than a majority vote.
Further, jurors were also required to answer “yes” to three questions propounded by the court, if they were to issue a verdict in the DOJ’s favor. The department had sought a civil penalty of $15,000, $5,000 in damages paid to Means, and a court order to keep Dillard at least 250 feet away from the doctor’s car, home, and business.
The first question asked whether “under all the circumstances of the case, would a reasonable recipient of defendant’s January 15, 2011 letter believe that it conveys a true threat of force?”
The second questions asked if Dillard, in sending the letter, “intentionally [sought] to intimidate” Means, while the third asked if she sent the letter “for the purpose of preventing Dr. Means from providing reproductive health services.”
Jurors agreed that a reasonable person in the doctor’s position would have thought the letter posed a true threat, but they did not think Dillard meant to intimidate Means.
Because the jury responded “no” to the second question the court brought forth, the group did not have to decide if the letter was meant to stop Means from providing reproductive care services.
Presiding juror and Wichita native Adam Cox, 37, told Rewire the jury struggled to reach a verdict.
They finally came to a consensus after considering that the letter of the law said the memo had to constitute “a physical threat, a threat of physical bodily injury,” Cox said.
“The letter was intimidating, but it was a more spiritual threat, a more emotional threat,” Cox said. “It was not a threat of physical violence … and therefore it did not violate the law.”
Cox, who said the jurors had varying opinions on abortion, said the group mainly focused on the letter itself for evidence. The other evidence revealed to the group was more contextual, he said.
In her closing statement on Thursday, DOJ attorney Julie Abbate urged the jury to determine whether Means or a reasonable person in Means’ position would fear harm from the writer or her associates.
“You don’t have to consider if Dillard was actually going to commit action,” Abbate said. “We’re not talking about actual force; we’re talking about the threat of force.”
She also urged jurors to consider the context in which the letter was sent and other details. Some of those matters included the fact that Dillard had befriended Tiller’s murderer within weeks of the tragic incident in 2009 and that Kansas-area FBI agent Sean Fitzgerald began an investigation after he learned of the letter.
Dillard’s defense attorney, Craig Shultz, argued in his closing statement that the DOJ had singled out the defendant to push a pro-choice agenda. He also argued that Dillard was simply using her First Amendment rights and that the DOJ chose to press charges because they did not like her opinion.
Dillard’s other defense attorney, Theresa Sidebotham, offered on Friday that there’s a “line between free speech and a true threat, and the jury found it.”
A statement from the DOJ was not immediately available.
Presiding Judge J. Thomas Marten, appointed by Clinton in 1996 and known for championing First Amendment rights in abortion rulings on both sides of the issue, had initially expected a verdict on Thursday.
Marten initially said that Dillard’s letter was protected speech. The DOJ then went to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which ruled that the matter should be decided in a jury trial in Wichita.
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to clarify Judge J. Thomas Marten’s initial ruling in the case.