WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — A Kansas abortion opponent must stand trial over a letter she sent to a Wichita doctor saying someone might place an explosive under the doctor's car, a federal appeals court ruled Tuesday.
The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned late Tuesday a lower court's summary decision that anti-abortion activist Angel Dillard's letter was constitutionally protected speech. The ruling comes in a civil lawsuit brought against Dillard by the Justice Department under a federal law aimed at protecting access to abortion services. A split three-judge appeals panel said the decision about whether the letter constituted a "true threat" should be left for a jury to decide.
The appeals court also rejected Dillard's argument that the government violated her free speech rights by suing her.
A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office in Kansas said the Justice Department may comment later Wednesday.
Defense attorney Theresa Lynn Sidebotham portrayed her client in an email as "a musician, chaplain, and homemaker who has always disavowed violence."
"It is disturbing that the DOJ spent massive resources going after her when both the FBI and the district judge concluded that no evidence exists that her letter was a threat," Sidebotham said.
Sidebotham also noted that Appeals Court Judge Bobby Baldock in his dissent wrote that the 10th Circuit is on "shaky ground" with respect to First Amendment rights.
The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division sued Dillard in 2011 under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act after the Valley Center woman wrote a letter to Dr. Mila Means, who was training to offer abortion services at her Wichita clinic. At the time, no doctor was doing abortions in Wichita in the wake of Dr. George Tiller's 2009 murder by an abortion opponent as Tiller ushered at his church.
In a 2-1 ruling, the appeals panel said a jury could reasonably find that the letter conveyed a true threat of violence.
"The context in this case includes Wichita's past history of violence against abortion providers, the culmination of this violence in Dr. Tiller's murder less than two years before Defendant mailed her letter, Defendant's publicized friendship with Dr. Tiller's killer, and her reported admiration of his convictions," the appeals court wrote in its decision.
Dillard wrote in her 2011 letter that thousands of people from across the nation were scrutinizing Means' background and would know her "habits and routines."
"They know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live," the letter said. "You will be checking under your car every day — because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it."
Means has testified that her fears upon getting that letter were heightened after reading a news story by The Associated Press that quoted Dillard saying in a July 2009 interview that she had developed a friendship with Scott Roeder while he was in jail awaiting trial for Tiller's murder.
"With one move, (Roeder) was able ... to accomplish what we had not been able to do," Dillard said. "So he followed his convictions and I admire that."
Dillard also told AP she had no plans to do anything violence to anyone.
The appeals court panel wrote that reading the AP story did nothing to allay Dr. Means' concerns: "She believed that Defendant's admiration of Mr. Roeder suggested a likelihood that she too would go 'from protester to murderer,' and she remained very anxious that Defendant or her associates would indeed place an explosive under her car as suggested by the letter."
Roeder is serving a life sentence for gunning down Tiller. Means eventually decided not to offer abortion services at her medical practice.
Tiller's clinic remained shuttered for four years following his death until his widow sold it to an abortion rights group that had raised money from across the country to reopen it.