Cover Story

False witnesses?

The U.S. Supreme Court is set to review the most sweeping legal judgment against pro-life activists in history. But painstakingly compiled new evidence shows that pro-abortion witnesses in the case may have lied

Issue: "False witnesses?," Oct. 5, 2002

Fay Clayton takes no prisoners. In a legal brief delivered on Sept. 17 to the U.S. Supreme Court, the feminist attorney from Chicago blamed pro-life activists for a litany of violent acts that stop just short of murder:

Demonstrators "regularly assaulted clinic personnel and patients," Ms. Clayton wrote, "... hit and clawed them, choked them, threw them to the ground, shoved and elbowed them, and slammed them against buildings even as they begged to be let go because they were being crushed." Pro-life activists "applied so much force against bodies pinned against buildings that glass doors and windows were damaged or cracked from the pressure." In an assault on one Los Angeles post-surgical patient, pro-lifers "pulled her hair, struck her, and beat her with an anti-abortion sign until her sutures ruptured and she passed out."

Shocking behavior, if true. But in the 16-year-long federal case that yielded a landmark racketeering verdict against leading pro-life activists in 1998, an increasing array of evidence shows that much of it may not be. This term, the U.S. Supreme Court will review National Organization for Women (NOW) vs. Joseph Scheidler. As NOW's lead attorney, Ms. Clayton submitted her latest brief as grist for the mill. But the nation's nine top justices will only consider whether the law allows nonviolent, political protest to be equated with racketeering and extortion.

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What the Supremes will not consider, at least not directly, is the evidence of the case, as they are charged to review legal rulings, not evidence. Other courts may reexamine that evidence, and the Supreme Court has at times found ways to take evidence into consideration. This should be one of those times, because WORLD, along with investigators hired by the defendants, has verified that some crucial witnesses appear to have lied.

Why is that evidence important? Here's a quick recap:

In 1986, the National Organization for Women filed a federal anti-trust suit. The suit named as defendants a handful of pro-life activists including Joseph Scheidler, an architect of nonviolent abortion protest, and his Chicago-based group Pro-Life Action League (PLAL). NOW's complaint: That along with his co-defendants, Mr. Scheidler, a devout Roman Catholic who had marched in 1965 with Martin Luther King Jr., interfered with interstate commerce by obstructing the right of abortionists to perform abortions, and the right of women to obtain them.

Over a period of years (see sidebar, page 22), the suit wrapped tendrils around other abortion foes, such as Operation Rescue, its founder Randall Terry, PLAL's Tim Murphy and Andy Scholberg, and the Pro-Life Action Network (PLAN), a loosely affiliated group of pro-life activists and groups across the country. But in 1989, allegations in the suit turned darker. Working with then-NOW Vice president Patricia Ireland, Ms. Clayton retooled the complaint, and the Scheidler defendants found themselves accused of Mafia-like racketeering and extortion.

Ms. Clayton claimed that Mr. Scheidler had orchestrated and controlled a nationwide, mob-like campaign of violence and intimidation against women and abortionists to "extort" their intangible "rights" to perform and obtain abortions. To prove her case, she presented a series of what she claimed were "predicate acts," or abortion-protest incidents that involved force, violence, or intimidation so as to form a pattern prosecutable under RICO, the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.

In April 1998, after 12 years of legal wrangling, a jury held Mssrs. Scheidler, Murphy, and Scholberg, as well as PLAL and Operation Rescue, liable for extortion and racketeering. The financial judgment: $257,000 in damages, plus plaintiffs' attorney fees that are expected to exceed $1 million. At NOW's request, U.S. District Judge David Coar in 1999 also issued a nationwide, 12-year injunction that effectively tied nonviolent, pro-life civil disobedience to racketeering and extortion.

The jury and Judge Coar acted as they did because NOW had shown to their satisfaction several things. First, that Mr. Scheidler and his co-defendants were responsible for at least two acts involving fear, force, or violence during a 10-year period. Second, that those acts were extortionate, that they enabled the defendants to obtain property from the plaintiffs. And finally, that the defendants operated or managed an organized enterprise that orchestrated and controlled the acts.

Ms. Clayton was never able to link the defendants to such highly publicized violence as clinic bombings or the shooting of abortionists. So she resorted to presenting to jurors a series of less-shocking examples. She included 17 in the 2002 brief she submitted opposing the Scheidler petition for Supreme Court review. These 17 are presumably her very best evidence-after all, this is going to the highest court in the land-of the defendant's "violent" nature.

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