Crime & Courts

Abortion suit leads to counterclaim

A Valley Center woman accused of sending a threatening letter to a Kansas doctor filed a counterclaim Tuesday against the Justice Department, contending that the government's lawsuit against her has had "an unlawful chilling effect" on her free-speech and religious rights.

The claims were made in Angel Dillard's formal response to the complaint filed last month by the Justice Department under a federal law aimed at protecting access to abortion services. The government contends Dillard, 44, sent a threatening letter to Mila Means, a Wichita physician who was training at the time to offer abortion services at her practice.

In a letter she sent Means in January, Dillard wrote that thousands of people from across the United States were looking into Means' 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."

The Justice Department's Civil Rights Division sued Dillard under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. The lawsuit seeks a court order permanently prohibiting Dillard from contacting Means or coming within 250 feet of the doctor, her home, car or business. It also seeks damages of $5,000 for the doctor and a penalty of $15,000.

In her counterclaim, Dillard claims the government's conduct has intimidated and interfered with her First Amendment right to worship where she chooses because her church is less than 250 feet from Means' office.

Dillard is seeking attorney fees, court costs, statutory damages of $5,000 per violation, as well as punitive damages to deter the government and its agents from further alleged violations of constitutional rights.

The government's "actions have had, and continue to have an unlawful chilling effect on Defendant's and others' right to free speech and free exercise of religion," according to the defense filing.

The Justice Department declined to comment on Dillard's filing.

U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten ruled last month that while Dillard's letter was clearly meant to intimidate Means, it wasn't a threat. The judge denied the government's request for a preliminary injunction at that time, calling the First Amendment the "absolute bedrock of this country's freedom" and ruling the letter was not a true threat.

Marten ordered both sides to present written briefings before he sets a hearing on an earlier defense request to dismiss the lawsuit. A hearing date has not been set.

The Justice Department has not yet responded specifically in a court filing to the defense request to dismiss the lawsuit.