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Straight time

Abortion | A pro-life Oakland pastor chooses jail over a plea bargain-and leads prisoners to Christ

Issue: "On the road again," May 9, 2009

For 19 days in March and April, Walter Hoye was locked in a cell with 29 other prisoners at the Santa Rita jail near Oakland, Calif. There were times when he wished he could have stayed longer.

When the metal door first clanged shut behind him on March 20, Hoye, 52, decided the space was really more of a cage than a cell. A metal grid penning in prisoners. Fifteen bunks lining two walls. Two toilets and a urinal for all 30 men, and a shower that inmates had gradually transformed into a pornographic shrine.

As Hoye made his way to an empty bunk, a few prisoners, mostly black and Latino, dogged his path. "You smuggle in any drugs, man?" one of them asked.

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"No," Hoye said quietly.

Then the veteran inmates left him alone, he told me, except for "one of the brothers who was kind enough to help me make up my bed."

A few minutes later, another man walked over to Hoye's bunk and jabbed his finger at a newspaper he was holding. "This you?" he said, eyeing Hoye skeptically.

Hoye peered at the Oakland Tribune headline: "Anti-abortion pastor chooses jail."

"Yeah, that's me," he said.

In the next moment, the inmate was striding up and down the length of the cell, announcing, "Hey, he don't have to be here! He turned down probation! He doing straight time for what he believed in!"

It was true: On Feb. 19, Alameda County Superior Court Judge Stuart Hing sentenced Walter Hoye, a Missionary Baptist minister, to 30 days in jail after Hoye refused a plea deal that included three years' probation, a small fine, and an order that he stay at least 100 yards away from Family Planning Specialists, an Oakland abortion clinic.

Passionate about the sky-high abortion rate among African-Americans, Hoye began offering men and women assistance at the clinic in 2006. About one in three Oakland residents is black, compared with a statewide African-American population of 6 percent. And though blacks make up only 12 percent of the U.S. population, they account for one-third of all abortions performed in the United States. More than three in 10 black women abort their unborn children.

According to the 2006 census, deaths now exceed live births among African-Americans. "We're no longer replacing ourselves," Hoye said. "So we're not using terms like holocaust and genocide just to elicit a response. It's the truth."

In response, once a week Hoye stood quietly outside Family Planning Specialists with a sign that said, "Jesus loves you and your baby. Let us help." When people approached the clinic, Hoye would ask their permission to speak with them about abortion alternatives; he also offered them pamphlets describing available help.

In 2007, pro-abortion clinic "escorts" began to show up in groups, surrounding Hoye and impeding his movement. They blocked his sign with sheets of blank cardboard and shouted down his low-key offers of help. When that didn't scare Hoye off, clinic managers lobbied the Oakland city council and in December 2007, the council instituted a "bubble-zone" ordinance applicable within a 100-foot radius of any Oakland abortion clinic. The law made it a crime to "approach within eight feet of any person seeking to enter" a "reproductive health care facility" in order to offer literature, display a sign, or engage in "oral protest, education, or counseling."

"This law is horribly unconstitutional," Hoye said. "It allows abortion clinics to decide which U.S. citizens are allowed to retain their constitutional right to free speech."

Represented by Life Legal Defense Fund (LLDF), Hoye challenged the ordinance in court. The case is still pending, but in May 2008, Oakland public attorneys acting in cooperation with clinic managers charged Hoye with "unlawful approaches" to women, and "force, threat of force, or physical obstruction."

What prosecutors did not know was that LLDF attorneys possessed four hours of uncut videotape documenting Hoye's activities outside the clinic on the dates in question. At trial in January 2009, the tapes impeached the testimony of clinic director Jackie Barbic, who claimed that Hoye repeatedly broke the 8-foot rule and that she and a patient had to put up their hands to fend him off. Instead, the tapes showed Hoye standing still as Barbic approached him; then they showed Hoye walking away. No incident shown on the tape matched Barbic's testimony, and even clinic escorts testified that Hoye was always cordial and never obstructed anyone's path or used threats or force.

Inexplicably, the jury still found Hoye guilty. At sentencing, the prosecutor recommended the probation and the clinic stay-away order-or two years in jail. When Hoye refused the stay-away order, Judge Hing appeared "surprised," Hoye said. "The judge was essentially asking me to stop trying to help men and women outside an abortion clinic, and I just would not voluntarily give up my First Amendment rights."

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