Prisoner of Conscience Activist: Cheryl Richardson is free now, having served 59 days in jail for not cooperating with an anti-abortion conspiracy investigation that eventually came up empty-handed.

January 31, 1996|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

At the Alexandria, Va., Detention Center they had to look at Cheryl Richardson and wonder. When the officers brought her in she was wearing a corduroy skirt and yellow sweater -- the fair-haired girl next door, or maybe the next special guest on the "PTL Club." To make it all the more baffling, she was not charged with any crime; she could leave jail anytime.

All the 33-year-old anti-abortion activist had to do was cooperate with a federal grand jury investigating allegations of a nationwide conspiracy to bomb abortion clinics and shoot doctors. But Cheryl Richardson wouldn't.

She considered the inquiry a government witch hunt against people opposed to abortion. She refused to cooperate again and again, never knowing how long she would be locked up for contempt. She ate Christmas dinner in the jail's dining hall. She spent New Year's Eve in solitary because she ate a cookie brought to her by her church pastor -- a violation of jail rules.

"I think the emotion had started to settle in then," says Ms. Richardson, a research assistant at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Beltsville. "I just cried all night long."

She's back home now in the Arnold apartment she shares with her mother after spending 59 days in jail. Late last Wednesday afternoon a husky guard opened the door to the jail's day room where Ms. Richardson was talking with a friend on the phone. He told her to pack up. Four hours later she sat in a neighborhood restaurant eating steak, shrimp, french fries, relishing the escape from jail food she describes as "horrible." In two months, she lost 10 pounds.

Ms. Richardson emerged from jail after the 16-month-long Justice Department investigation came up empty. No indictments, no evidence of a conspiracy. U.S. District Judge Leonie M. Brinkema issued an order saying Ms. Richardson's testimony was no longer needed.

As far as Ms. Richardson is concerned, she did testify. She said under oath on three occasions that she knew nothing about any plans for criminal activity, nothing about a conspiracy. But prosecutors wanted to know about people she knew in the anti-abortion movement, especially her former fiance, a New Hampshire activist who had publicly praised John C. Salvi III, the man accused of killing two people at abortion clinics in Brookline, Mass., as a "hero." She wasn't going to answer.

No disrespect

"It wasn't that I have disrespect for law or order or justice," she says she told the grand jury in one of three appearances. "But I believe the investigation is unjust. That Christians are being harassed and intimidated and these people are engaged in legal activities, freedom of speech and assembly, as far as I know. This is their response to their religious convictions."

On Nov. 27, Judge Brinkema sent Ms. Richardson to jail for civil contempt of court. Officers put her in an official car and drove a few blocks from the Alexandria courthouse to the detention center.

Ms. Richardson had been warned weeks before that she would be put in jail if she did not cooperate. She agonized about what to do. She researched the law and read the Bible and talked with friends and thought about it from every angle. As she rode through the streets of Alexandria toward the jail, though, she says, "I felt peace. I felt that what I was doing was right."

Minutes after she arrived at the jail, another prisoner gave her a Bible, which helped sustain her during the next two months. Even before she was sent to jail she had found solace in the first verse of Exodus, Chapter 23: "Thou shalt not raise a false report: put not thine hand with the wicked to be an unrighteous witness."

Because of her associations with people in the anti-abortion movement, prosecutors apparently believed that Ms. Richardson had information that could help show a link between one violent incident and another. Their investigation began after a doctor and his bodyguard were shot and killed outside an abortion clinic in Pensacola, Fla., in July 1994.

Since March 1993, five people have been shot to death at abortion clinics in Brookline and Pensacola. People have been injured and property destroyed in bombings and arsons at clinics that date back to the 1980s.

Kate Michelman, president of the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, says regardless of whether the government proves a conspiracy, "there's no question that there is a campaign of organized terror that exists in this country. They share information, they share ideas We have five dead now and seven wounded. This is serious."

Ms. Richardson discovered the seriousness of the issue inside a Glen Burnie abortion clinic in 1980. She was 18, not married, entering her fourth month of pregnancy. Her boyfriend wanted her to have the baby, but she was a student at Anne Arundel Community College interested in pursuing a career.

The people at the Gynecare Center were right; it was over in about 15 minutes. At some point during the procedure she heard somebody say the fetus was a boy.

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