A federal jury in Chicago, Illinois found Operation Rescue, the Chicago-based Pro-Life Action League, the league's executive director Joseph Scheidler, and activists Andrew Scholber and Timothy Murphy guilty of violating the Federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute (RICO).
National Women's Health Organization (NWHO) President Susan Hill commented, "This is a tremendous victory for abortion providers throughout the country. We have finally cracked the conspiracy. For the first time we have proven in court what we have known for years. There is an organized campaign of terror being waged against abortion providers nationwide."
Commenting on the significance of yesterday's decision, Smeal, now president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said "We hope this decision will embolden federal law enforcement to take a criminal RICO case to shut down the anti-abortion reign of terror once and for all."
The judge may triple the jury's award of more than $85,000 under civil RICO. Because this is a class action lawsuit, Hill said she expects hundreds of clinics to seek damages. After seven weeks of testimony, the jury (composed of 4 women and 2 men) found that Scheidler and other anti-abortion extremists interfered with the clinics' ability to do business for more than 15 years. The jury also resolved that there was a nationwide campaign resulting in 21 acts of extortion, which included threats of physical violence.
Hill said, "No health care worker or patient should be subjected to the years of 'Pain and Fear' that Scheidler, Operation Rescue and their foot soldiers have inflicted on us. After having heard all of the evidence, this jury of good citizens agreed with us that Americans should be free to go to work without fear, to access health care without violence, and to operate business free from attacks."
Colleen Connell, associate legal director of the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, commented on anti-abortion claims that the ruling will open the way for violations of First Amendment rights. Connell said, "This case is not the end of the First Amendment as we know it. Nobody's saying that Scheidler can't write an op-ed piece saying abortion is murder ... But the Constitution has never been found to protect extortion: someone saying they'll break your windows every day or someone stationing a thug outside your business."
The lawsuit, NOW vs. Scheidler, was filed in 1986 by then president of the National Organization for Women, Eleanor Smeal. The suit was filed in conjunction with NWHO after the president of the local Pensacola NOW chapter was injured during a clinic invasion.
Scheidler and the other defendants are expected to appeal the verdict, along with the Chicago Archdiocese, which may appeal as a friend of the court. U.S. District Court Judge David Coar scheduled a follow-up hearing for Wednesday.
Feminist Majority Press Release:
Landmark Win! Civil RICO Case Cracks Anti-Abortion Ring of Conspiracy