Jury Finds Scheidler, Operation Rescue Guilty

Racketeering Verdict Comes After Years of Litigation

by Kim Gandy, Executive Vice President

The victors in NOW v. Scheidler. On the top, the legal team (left to right): Sara Love; Kerry Miller; Lowell Sachnoff; Fay Clayton, lead attorney; Judy Lamble. Bottom row, the plaintiffs (left of right): Susan Hill, owner of the Summit and Delaware clinics; Kim Gandy, NOW Executive Vice President; Karen Johnson, NOW Membership Vice President. Photo by Ann Rose.

A Chicago jury was transfixed for weeks as NOW Foundation attorneys presented a compelling case that abortion opponents violated the anti-racketeering laws by using violence, intimidation and extortion to stop abortion. The jury of four women and two men returned a unanimous verdict: Operation Rescue, Joe Scheidler and their co-defendants are racketeers under the Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act and will be liable for triple damages for all of the harm their violent acts have caused to clinics.

Although NOW will receive no money from the caseŚnot even our trial costsŚwe have won just what we asked for: a nation-wide injunction against these bullies.

Maureen Burke, the original coordinator of NOW's Project Stand Up for Women, was the first witness in our case after opening statements began on March 4. Burke set the stage and described the background of the case, which was filed after anti-abortion protestors trained by Joe Scheidler invaded a Pensacola clinic in 1985, causing extensive damage and injuring the clinic administrator and an officer of the local NOW chapter. Burke outlined the ways in which NOW activists defended against the blockades and invasions, and the impact of the increasing violence on women's access to reproductive care.

Dozens of patients and staff from clinics across the country came forward to describe the impact of the defendants' actions on their lives. Women who had been prevented from entering clinics testified anonymously, each as "Jane Doe." A woman from California, testifying as Jane Doe D, described the forcible blockade that prevented her from reaching her doctor for a post-operative appointment. A cancer survivor who'd had surgery to try to preserve her reproductive organs, she was hit on the head with an Operation Rescue sign; her sutures ruptured during the assault and she fainted in the parking lot. She was not allowed to tell the jury, however, about her year-long nightmares or being turned down for jobs because her picture had been on television.

Dr. Susan Wicklund, who had been inspired to change her practice after attending NOW's 1989 Mobilize for Women's Lives rally, described wearing bullet-proof vests to enter her clinics, and the threats that became a daily part of her life. Jane Doe A left several jurors in tears after she told of her own trauma and that of the 14-year-old rape victim she comforted as they struggled for days to cross violent blockades. Other Jane Doe witnesses, along with clinic doctors and administrators from Melbourne (Fla.), Pensacola, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Wichita, Milwaukee and other cities, described the effect of the intimidation and extortion on their lives and their communities.

Fay Clayton, the attorney who won the unanimous 1994 Supreme Court decision that allowed us to proceed to trial, led the team of attorneys and volunteers who put the case together based on years of preparation and discovery. She presented the case on behalf of NOW, which is the class representative on behalf of all women "who have been or may be interfered with in their use of women's health clinics because of the actions of the defendants."

Lowell Sachnoff, a trial lawyer and also Clayton's husband, stepped into the fray at the eleventh hour as counsel for the Summit and Delaware clinics representing all clinics in the country. The owner of the clinics, Susan Hill, also president of the National Women's Health Organization, was a stalwart and courageous presence at the trial during the entire seven weeks of testimony.

The next step will be to establish the amount of damages owed by the defendents to each of the individual clinics. And we expect to receive a nationwide injunction as soon as the judge completes the preparation. Of course, we will also be defending against any appeals filed by the defendents.

Within a week of the verdict, abortion rights opponents in Congress took action to negate NOW's victory. Rep. Tom Coburn, R-Ok., a physician and one of the House's most extreme anti-abortion rights activists, offered an amendment during floor debate that would have overturned the jury decision. Coburn subsequently withdrew his amendment, but House Judiciary Committee Chair and longtime abortion rights opponent, Henry Hyde, R-Ill., offered his support by indicating that he might hold hearings about the application of RICO in such cases.

NOW v. Scheidler has been a long and costly case, and the struggle may not be over, but the outcome makes it worth every minute and every dollar NOW members and supporters have invested. A nationwide injunction will help women and clinics everywhere. And finally, we will hit anti-abortion kingpins where they truly feel it -- in their bank accounts.

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