Jury: Anti-abortion activist's letter to doctor not a threat

AP News
Posted: May 06, 2016 4:55 PM

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Jurors sided with a Kansas anti-abortion activist on Friday by ruling that she didn't intentionally seek to intimidate a doctor by sending a letter that suggested someone might place an explosive under the Wichita physician's car.

The U.S. Justice Department's Civil Rights Division sued Angel Dillard in 2011 for sending the letter to Dr. Mila Means, who had been training to offer abortions. At the time, no doctor was performing abortions in Wichita in the wake of the 2009 slaying of Dr. George Tiller by an abortion opponent.

Jurors ruled in favor of Dillard, whose attorneys argued that the letter amounted to constitutionally protected speech. But the jury also said a reasonable recipient of the letter would believe it conveyed a true threat. The lawsuit was filed under a federal law aimed at protecting access to abortion services, and jurors were tasked with deciding whether the letter constituted a "true threat."

The government argued that Dillard intended to intimidate the physician to keep her from offering abortion services in Wichita. The lawsuit asked the court to prevent Dillard from contacting Means and to bar the activist from being within 250 feet of the doctor's home, car or business. It also sought damages for Means of $5,000, and a civil penalty of $15,000.

At the time Dillard sent her letter to Means, abortions hadn't been offered in Wichita since Tiller's death two years earlier. Tiller, who was one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers, was fatally shot at his church in Wichita by an anti-abortion zealot.

In her letter, Dillard wrote that thousands of people from throughout the U.S. 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 everyday — because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it."

Dillard testified Thursday that she never meant the letter as a threat, saying she would never do anything violent. But she said she didn't regret writing the letter.

"I am not responsible for what she feels," Dillard testified. "You can make anything sound like a threat."

Government attorney Julie Abbate said Dillard has a right to oppose abortion, but not the right to use or invoke fear and intimidation. Abbate said Dillard wrote the letter to make the doctor fearful of expanding her medical practice to offer abortions.

"Dr. Means was getting ready to do something that had gotten a man killed, something nobody else stepped up to do since Dr. Tiller was murdered," Abbate told jurors during closing arguments.

Defense attorney Craig Shultz told jurors the letter wasn't a threat of force or physical harm, but rather persuasive speech protected under the First Amendment. Shultz acknowledged that some of language in the letter was "pretty tough sounding," but he said it was nothing beyond what the doctor already knew or should have known. He said the letter amounted to "a warning that these things are commonplace."

Abbate said the First Amendment has limits, and those limits were reached in this case.