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Let the record show

Abortion | Supreme Court arguments leave troubling questions unanswered

Issue: "Dick Armey's parting words," Dec. 14, 2002

Will Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor base a landmark opinion on false testimony? She may if she fails to consider the merit of that testimony during the high court's review of National Organization for Women (NOW) vs. Joseph Scheidler.

The court last week heard oral arguments in the 1998 case in which a jury found pro-life activist Joseph Scheidler and co-defendants liable for mob-like extortion charges under RICO, the Racketeering Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Attorneys for Mr. Scheidler argued that RICO does not apply in the case, since the pro-life demonstrations on which the case turned were political protests--not gangland schemes to extort money or property.

Several justices, including Antonin Scalia and Stephen Breyer, seemed troubled that allowing the RICO verdict to stand might chill controversial civil disobedience. But in oral arguments Justice O'Connor cited pro-life violence alleged in the case, saying that "in some cases there were assaults," so "to paint a picture that what we're talking about is pure speech ... that is not the case."

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Justice O'Connor's information on "assaults" is included in a brief NOW filed in September that alleged a series of violent acts perpetrated by the Scheidler defendants. But a WORLD investigation ("False witnesses?" Oct. 5, 2002) revealed that those assertions may have been based on false testimony by NOW witnesses:

-Carolyn Thompson, a woman who testified anonymously that she was beaten bloody at a Los Angeles abortion protest, told a significantly different version of her story in a 1989 class-action suit in which she was the named lead plaintiff. That story varied on numerous essential details and mentioned no assault. Scheidler attorneys charged that NOW deliberately obscured Ms. Thompson's identity in order to hide discrepancies between her 1989 and 1998 testimonies.

-Abortion clinic organizer Susan Hill testified that a Scheidler protester broke the arm of an abortion clinic administrator's husband during a pro-life demonstration in Milwaukee in 1985. The truth, documented in court records and news stories, was that a passerby unassociated with the Scheidler defendants (and with a history of mental problems) broke the man's arm in 1986.

-Penny Bertsch, an abortion clinic manager in Chico, Calif., claimed that Scheidler-affiliated pro-lifers injured her when they "smashed clinic staff members against the clinic" for four hours in 1989. But video footage covering virtually the entire event shows pro-lifers staging a peaceful sit-in while Ms. Bertsch and other clinic supporters picked up protesters and shoved them away from the clinic.

A decision is expected in June.

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