U.S. probe yet to find abortion-foe conspiracy Grand jury may end without indictments

January 26, 1996|By Lyle Denniston and Sandy Banisky | Lyle Denniston and Sandy Banisky,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The Justice Department, after 16 months, has found "no direct evidence" that anti-abortion activists have joined in a national conspiracy to stage violence against abortion clinics and doctors. But department officials said yesterday that they won't stop looking for signs that clinic attacks are linked.

Lawyers and investigators who have been looking for a broad conspiracy are narrowing their emphasis to more isolated cases of violence. There is "no direct evidence of a single, nationwide conspiracy," one official familiar with the probe said.

Anti-abortion groups, who have accused the department of searching for a crime that did not exist, claimed vindication.

"It shows they haven't found a thread of anything to even bring a casual indictment," said Donald Treshman, a Baltimore resident who heads the anti-abortion group Rescue America.

They also asserted that the department had conceded that it was getting nowhere, and they cited as evidence its willingness to have an Arnold, Md., woman released after nearly two months in jail for refusing to answer investigators' questions.

Cheryl Richardson had been in jail in Alexandria, Va., since Nov. 27, after she would not answer questions before a grand jury. She was released without warning Wednesday evening, according to her lawyer, Matthew T. Foley.

Authorities told him that Ms. Richardson's testimony was no longer needed, Mr. Foley said. "I can tell you without naming any names that I was given an indication that the investigation was ending."

Mr. Foley said the grand jury wanted information on Ms. Richardson's former fiance, Andrew Cabot, a New Hampshire anti-abortion activist. Mr. Cabot, who has been arrested in clinic protests, has praised John Salvi, who was accused of killing two people 13 months ago in Brookline, Mass., clinics.

At a weekly meeting with reporters yesterday, Attorney General Janet Reno would not confirm that any part of the probe had come to an end, noting that she never discusses publicly what is happening in investigations.

"We have and will continue to pursue all leads, all evidence" of clinic violence, she said, that would violate last year's federal clinics protection law. She vowed continued vigorous enforcement of that law.

Abortion-rights groups, which had pressured the Clinton administration to look for a national conspiracy among anti-abortion groups, were disappointed that the grand jury apparently will expire without broad indictments.

"This runs counter to all the information that [we have] gathered over the last two decades, which clearly shows an organized campaign," said Vicki Saporta of the National Abortion Federation.

Five people have been killed and seven wounded, she said, and clinics have incurred millions of dollars in damage in 140 violent incidents at clinics. "These are not random acts. These people meet and gather on a regular basis and discuss their activities."

Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said she had been assured by Justice Department officials that "the investigation is continuing and it's a high priority." More cases will be prosecuted regionally under the federal law that protects access to abortion clinics, she said.

But Ms. Smeal said she fears that anti-abortion activists "will treat this as a victory. What worries me is, will they feel they're free now to do more?"

Anti-abortion activists said the end of the grand jury investigation supports their contention that no criminal conspiracy against clinics or abortion doctors exists.

"It seems the administration is caught between the [abortion-rights] people carping at them to continue and the stone wall they've run up against," said the Rev. Michael Bray of Bowie, an outspoken opponent of abortion.

The end of the grand jury on schedule in March means "a lot fewer people will get harassed," said Mr. Bray, who was called before the panel and said he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to answer questions. Mr. Bray, who spent four years in federal prison for bombing clinics, said Ms. Richardson is a member of his congregation.

Mr. Treshman said he spent more than four hours before the grand jury last year after being granted immunity.

"They were asking questions about individuals, did we know individuals who were responsible for violent acts," Mr. Treshman said. "Of course we haven't known anyone involved in violent activity."

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