Anti-abortion activist accused of threat claims clergy privilege with Tiller’s killer

12/06/2012 3:03 PM

12/06/2012 6:36 PM

An anti-abortion activist accused of threatening a Wichita physician is claiming “ministerial privileges” in refusing to answer the government's questions about her relationship with the man convicted of murdering late-term abortion provider Dr. George Tiller.

The dispute comes in a lawsuit the Justice Department filed against Angel Dillard last year under a federal law aimed at protecting access to reproductive services. The government has accused Dillard of sending a threatening letter to Dr. Mila Means, who was training to offer abortion services after Tiller's 2009 death.

The Justice Department wants a judge to force Dillard to answer questions about her jail ministry and her relationship with Scott Roeder, who is serving a life sentence for Tiller's murder. In a filing last month, the government noted that the threatening January 2011 letter to Means referenced Tiller's death and that Dillard has publicly stated she admired Roeder.

Dillard told the court in a filing late Wednesday that she has responded to other questions from the government, but won't provide what she considers to be confidential information within the “clergy-communicant privilege” in her jail ministry. She intends to file a request with the court for a protective order covering that information.

Her attorney argued that most of Dillard's interactions with inmates were done in her work for the nonprofit group Christian Ministries to Offenders Inc. Dillard signed a confidentiality agreement as part of that ministry, which has worked with Sedgwick County inmates for more than 30 years.

The Justice Department contends the “priest-penitent privilege” does not apply in this case because there is no evidence Dillard is an ordained minister. It also says she couldn't have meant for her communications with Roeder to be kept secret because both of them knew conversations and writings from prison are likely to be monitored.

Abortions have not been openly performed in Wichita since Tiller, one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers, was fatally shot in May 2009 at his Wichita church.

Dillard's defense attorney, Don McKinney, is himself a longstanding abortion opponent who once protested outside Tiller's clinic. Also, he was appointed in 2006 as a special prosecutor to pursue an appeal of criminal charges against Tiller after a local judge dismissed them. Former Kansas Attorney General Phill Kline made the appointment after losing re-election, but Kline's successor fired McKinney and dropped the appeal.

The Justice Department's lawsuit contends Dillard, of Valley Center, told Means in the threatening letter that thousands of people from across the United States are already looking into her background.

“They will know your 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.”

McKinney wrote that Dillard has told the government that she has never discussed Means with any inmate, much less threaten her or any other health provider during her jail ministry activities. He argued his client's supplemental responses and jail records already obtained by the federal government should answer the Justice Department's questions.

A defense filing Thursday also made public for the first time jail logs detailing several visits Dillard made to Roeder, as well as the $373 she deposited into Roeder's inmate trust fund between April 2010 and March 2012.

“There is simply no compelling reason to require Angel Dillard to violate her duties as a spiritual counselor (and her confidentiality agreement) and disclose confidential information or information already in the government's possession,” McKinney wrote.

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