Jurors sided with a Valley Center 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 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 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 asked to decide whether the letter constituted a “true threat.”
“I am glad it is over,” Means said from her office after the ruling. She said she’s no longer afraid, because she ultimately decided not to offer abortion services, but she expressed concern for the safety of abortion providers, noting that it’s extremely difficult to prove intent.
Jury foreman Adam Cox said after the proceedings that the deciding factor for jurors was that the law specified the threat had to be a physical threat of bodily injury. Cox said jurors decided the letter was “more of a spiritual threat, more of an emotional threat – not a threat of physical violence.”
Defense attorney Theresa Sidebotham, whom Dillard hugged after the ruling in the courtroom, said Dillard never intended the letter to be a threat, adding: “This was a stretch case, always was for the government.”
The government could appeal the case. Justice Department attorney Richard Goemann declined comment after the trial.
The government argued that Dillard intended to intimidate Means 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.
Trust Women, a Wichita-based foundation that oversees South Wind Women’s Center, the only clinic in Wichita that provides surgical abortions, said in a statement Friday that it was disappointed in the ruling and that although it values free speech, threats should be taken seriously – noting Tiller’s murder.
“Threats against doctors who provide abortions should concern everyone,” the statement read. “Violence is never a solution, and we, unfortunately, know that firsthand. We are accustomed to obstacles in our work, but doctors at clinics such as ours should be able to practice without intimidation and fear.”
Contributing: Gabriella Dunn of The Eagle