The fate of five people accused of conspiring to obstruct access to an abortion clinic in Washington is now in the hands of a federal jury after the prosecution and defense wrapped up their respective cases in federal court last week.
Each defendant faces up to 11 years in prison.
Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia sent jurors home on Aug. 25 after they began deliberations following closing arguments by attorneys a day earlier. Deliberations are scheduled to resume on Aug. 29.
The defendants are charged with “conspiracy against rights” and conspiracy under section 248 of Title 18 of the U.S. Code, which is part of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.
Section 248 states that it is “unlawful for a person to use force, the threat of force, or physical obstruction to intentionally injure or intimidate a person because he or she is or has been obtaining or providing reproductive health services,” according to a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) summary.
The FACE Act has been criticized by federal lawmakers, including Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who has said the Biden administration enforces the law selectively.
Mr. Roy and other lawmakers signed a letter in March stating that the Biden DOJ used the FACE Act more than two dozen times in 2022 against pro-life activists, but until this year, the statute “had never been used to indict individuals related to an attack on a pro-life pregnancy center or house of worship.”
Lauren Handy of Virginia and nine other defendants were indicted in 2022 for conspiring to obstruct access to the Washington Surgi-Clinic, which provides abortions, in October 2020. The indictment from last year states that “it was the purpose of the conspiracy to create a blockade to stop the Clinic from providing, and patients from obtaining, reproductive health services.”
Some in the pro-life movement refer to this kind of direct-action tactic as a “rescue” because it may save an unborn human’s life.
The DOJ said the indictment stated that “as part of the conspiracy, [seven defendants] traveled to Washington, D.C., from various northeast and midwestern states, to participate in a clinic blockade” that was broadcast on Facebook. Eight of the defendants “forcefully entered the clinic and set about blockading two clinic doors using their bodies, furniture, chains, and ropes.”
Nine defendants allegedly violated the FACE Act “by using a physical obstruction to injure, intimidate and interfere with the clinic’s employees and a patient, because they were providing or obtaining reproductive health services.”
If convicted of the offenses, each of the defendants faces a maximum of 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $350,000, according to the department.
Ms. Handy and four other co-defendants—Herb Geraghty of Pennsylvania, Heather Idoni of Michigan, William Goodman of Wisconsin, and John Hinshaw of New York—went on trial two weeks ago in the nation’s capital.
“A defendant may not don a vigilante’s hood to insert themselves into a situation of their own making and subsequently claim defense of a third person to justify their actions,” the judge wrote.
The defendants “agree that they traveled to the District of Columbia to engage in preplanned activity, forcing their way into the clinic shortly before it opened. Without the imminent threat of either a greater evil or death or serious bodily injury, neither a duress nor necessity defense is available.”
Ms. Handy is the director of activism for Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, which describes its mission as mobilizing “grassroots anti-abortion activists for direct action and [to] educate on the exploitative influence of the Abortion Industrial Complex through an anti-capitalist lens.”
After being sentenced to jail time on a separate charge in July 2022, Ms. Handy said, “As a Catholic and progressive myself, I am compelled by my deeply held beliefs (religious and political) to put my body between the oppressed and the oppressor.”
Ms. Handy’s attorney, Martin A. Cannon, senior trial counsel at the Thomas More Society, a public interest law firm, told The Epoch Times that he's cautiously optimistic.
The co-defendants are “a remarkable bunch of people, just the most peaceful, loving people you ever saw,” Mr. Cannon said in an interview on Aug. 26.
The prosecution has been lumping all the co-defendants together “like they’re all the same, but the DOJ has to prove its case individually against each defendant.”
“When you step back and look at the evidence, what you really see is there’s a few people who might have been doing the things that are prohibited by FACE, but the bulk of the people were doing things that FACE does not prohibit,” he said.
“You can think of all kinds of conventional, historical Martin Luther King kind of protests that have been going on forever, that FACE does not prohibit. And most of the people in this case were actually doing stuff like that and not violating FACE.”
“The government wants to say, ‘Well, there’s two or three or four that were violating FACE—all of you conspired, so we’re just going to all throw it in together.’ And I don’t think they get to really do that. And I think the jury was paying some attention to that.”
FACE makes it a crime to use force, threats, or physical obstruction to intimidate, cause injury, or interfere with a person providing or obtaining reproductive health services, he said.
“What the DOJ missed is that Lauren was not doing this because of reproductive health services. She saw a video of this very same doctor at this very same clinic, pretty implicitly acknowledging that babies are getting born alive in his clinic. And if they do, he will just leave them alone to die.
“That is not legal. There’s no available argument that a living baby at any gestational age outside the womb is a pregnancy. And when the baby winds up outside the womb, he goes from a place of no protection into a place of protection, as the procedure from that point out, whatever happens to him is outside of the FACE Act. And he gets all the same protections that a four-year-old kid would get.”
Ms. Handy is “entitled to defend those babies just like she could defend a 4-year-old getting dragged in someplace and killed or neglected or whatever.”
“She didn't violate the other provisions of FACE, either. She never used force. She never used threats. She never used physical obstruction. She didn’t injure. She didn’t intimidate. She didn’t interfere,” Mr. Cannon said.
Meanwhile, co-defendant Jay Smith of New York accepted a plea deal. On Aug. 7, he was sentenced to 10 months of incarceration to be followed by 36 months of supervised release, court records indicate.
The remaining four co-defendants—Jonathan Darnel of Virginia, Joan Andrews Bell of New Jersey, and Paulette Harlow and Jean Marshall of Massachusetts—are scheduled to be tried on Sept. 6.
The DOJ, which is handling the prosecution, didn’t respond by press time to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.