National NOW Times >> Summer 2002 >> Article
Wrongfully Imprisoned Abortion Provider Released
by Rebecca Farmer, Press Secretary
Jailed abortion provider Dr. James Pendergraft was released on Feb. 27, 2002, pending a hearing on his appeal. Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judges Tjoflat, Roney and Cox issued an order for the immediate release of Pendergraft and his associate, Michael Spielvogel, from custody at a federal prison in Atlanta just one day after hearing oral arguments on the case. Pendergraft, who operates five clinics in Florida, had been in prison since July.
"It's wonderful to be out of prison," Pendergraft said in a phone interview with NOW. "I'm looking forward to getting back to work and taking care of women who are in need of my help."
Pendergraft has resumed administrative work since his release, but has not yet returned to providing abortions. "I'm still getting back on my feet . . . Seven months is a long time," he said, noting that he has been happy to spend time with his family again. He also said that he plans to continue working hard for women's rights and lives.
Pendergraft's case shocked the abortion rights community as an unprecedented attack on a respected provider. The doctor was slapped with federal charges of extortion by anti-abortion prosecutors in early 2001, convicted and put behind bars. Pendergraft was sentenced just a month after speaking to more than 10,000 activists at NOW's Emergency Action for Women's Lives in April 2001. NOW and other abortion rights groups saw the unjust charges as an underhanded attempt to shut down his practice.
Pendergraft said about his case, "I think this is about someone's political agenda. I've said from the beginning that I've done nothing wrong, and I hope the appeals court sees it this way."
In 1998, officials in Ocala, Fla., discouraged Pendergraft from opening a clinic in the town, and when he refused to back down, anti-abortion forces made sure the building was under constant siege. When Pendergraft filed a civil suit against Marion County and the city of Ocala for failing to protect the clinic and its employees, a settlement conference was set-up by the county. Unaware that the FBI was taping the conference, Pendergraft lashed back when presented with a ridiculously low settlement offer, saying he would bankrupt the city if the suit went to trial. Although his statement was pure bombast, prosecutors used it as evidence of extortion.
"Government officials and clinic terrorists often work hand in hand to drive abortion providers out of business and out of town," said NOW President Kim Gandy. "The outrageous criminal charges against Dr. Pendergraft and his subsequent imprisonment are a compelling example of why women do not have access to abortion services in more than 85 percent of U.S. counties. Plain and simple, doctors are afraid of what will happen to them if they provide abortions."
Abortion rights supporters in Florida and around the country rallied behind Pendergraft and filled the courtroom throughout his trial. But local authorities created a hostile climate for Pendergraft and his clinic from the get-go. Witnesses say his trial was no better. Dr. Sangeeta Pati, a physician and supporter who attended most of the trial, described gross prosecutorial misconduct, open racism in the court, inappropriate jury selection and the judge's denial of defense witnesses.
"I suspect the Eleventh Circuit released Pendergraft pending his appeal because they immediately recognized the glaring flaws and misconduct in his trial and in the charges against him," Gandy said.
Gandy also pointed out that the imprisonment of Dr. Pendergraft and his release both underscore the need for fair judges and prosecutors at every level of the judicial system. "Currently, eight of the 13 federal circuit courts are controlled by conservative judges," she said. "George Bush's current appointees to federal appellate judgeships, if confirmed by the U.S. Senate, could bring that number up to 11 out of 13 circuits. We cannot afford to let that happen, and we will do what it takes to make sure that women's rights are protected."
For background information on Dr. Pendergraft's case:
Florida Abortion Provider Behind Bars