Abortion 'hit lists' trial goes to jury

Clinics, doctors seek $200 million, saying Web site target them

1st Amendment is invoked

January 28, 1999|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

PORTLAND, Ore. -- In an elegant federal courtroom 15 stories above the Willamette River, a jury will decide if posters and a Web site created by abortion opponents are protected by the First Amendment or are an invitation to violence.

A civil suit by four doctors and two Portland women's clinics alleges that "wanted" posters and a Web site with the names, addresses and photographs of physicians who perform abortions amounted to a hit list that made them fear for their lives.

The lawsuit seeks $200 million from 12 individuals and two anti-abortion groups.

But the defendants say they are the victims of a witch hunt. They contend that their posters and Web site -- no matter how offensive to some -- are protected under the First Amendment guarantee of free speech.

The jury of four men and four women began deliberating yesterday morning after three weeks of testimony that included the legally agreed upon definitions of "threat" and "abortionist;" videotapes of anti-abortion rallies and the photographs of blackened shells of several bombed clinics.

However, the jurors did not meet perhaps the best known of the defendants.

Michael Bray, the pastor of a small independent Lutheran church in Bowie, who spent four years in prison for a string of clinic bombings, refused to answer pretrial questions about his activities and spent the trial in Maryland.

The judge ruled Bray in default of the civil suit, saying he will have to abide by the jury's decision.

Bray, 46, author of the 1993 book, "A Time to Kill," is seen as a spokesman for a faction of abortion opponents that believes violence against clinics and doctors is justified to defend the unborn.

During closing arguments Tuesday, spectators sat shoulder to shoulder, turning federal marshals into ushers as they tried to shoehorn one more person into the wood-paneled courtroom.

Families needed protection

During the trial, jurors heard physicians who perform abortions describe their efforts to protect themselves and their families after receiving FBI warnings that their names were on the Web site.

The defendants argued that they wanted to scare the doctors so that they would stop performing abortions.

Before the jurors began their deliberations, U.S. District Judge Robert Jones gave them 49 pages of instructions.

Jones told the jurors they must decide whether a reasonable person would consider the posters and Web site threatening and not protected by the First Amendment.

In closing arguments, Charles Wysong, a defendant serving as his own lawyer, told the jurors, "You've seen me for three weeks now. If you judge me to be a reasonable man, you know I would not associate with people who are unreasonable."

Violent context

Lawyers for the physicians and Planned Parenthood, which operates one of the Oregon clinics, told jurors that in the context of clinic bombings and shootings of doctors and staff members, the materials could not be viewed as anything but threatening.

Christopher Ferrara, a defense attorney, disagreed. "This is a case about words and only words," he said. "These are not threats. These are First Amendment rights."

The "Deadly Dozen" poster, created in January 1995 by the American Coalition of Life Activists, one of the organizations being sued, listed 13 doctors and their addresses, and accused them of being "guilty" of "crimes against humanity."

A second 1995 poster by the Oregon organization targeted Dr. Robert Crist, who performs abortions in St. Louis and is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Maria Vullo, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, argued that the coalition's posters provoked violence, saying their release was followed each time by the shooting of a doctor who performed abortions.

"Poster. Murder. Poster. Murder. Poster. Murder," she said.

`Nuremberg Files'

In 1996, the coalition went on the Internet with a site called "the Nuremberg Files," which lists personal information about 225 abortion providers across the country.

The site compares the doctors to Nazi war criminals and says the information will be used to try them if abortion becomes illegal.

One witness acknowledged that he drew a line though the name of each abortion provider listed in the Web site who had been killed and shaded the names of the wounded.

The defendants and their lawyers insisted that the posters and the Web site were meant to inform, not threaten.

`It's about terror'

But Martin London, a plaintiffs' lawyer, scoffed at the notion in his closing argument.

"This case in not about free speech. It's about terror," London said. "If terrorists can evoke enough fear, then they've done their job. The terrorist doesn't have to fulfill his threat."

Martin decried anti-abortion activists such as Bray who believe that killing clinic doctors is justifiable homicide.

"Timothy McVeigh believed the government was so bad that he had the right to blow up that federal building.

"Terrorists believed they were within their right to bomb the World Trade Center," he said.

But defense lawyer Ferrara mocked the conspiracy theory, saying terrorists don't place the name and address of their organization on the bottom of a poster.

`It's preposterous'

"This is hardly the work of people issuing death threats," he said, gesturing toward a 3-by 4-foot enlargement.

"It's preposterous to say a poster caused a shooting."

Ferrara said the organization has its own constitution that prohibits violence, and that members had a right to voice their opinions.

"When you engage in political protest, you enlist lawful pressure," he said.

"We have the right to apply pressure -- legitimate legal pressure -- to bring about change."

Pub Date: 1/28/99

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