Freedom Writer - March 1996
Grand jury won't issue indictments
By Adam Guasch-Melendez
On March 26, 1996, a federal grand jury in Alexandria,
Virginia is scheduled to conclude an 18-month investigation
into the possible existence of a national conspiracy
to commit acts of violence against providers of abortion
services. The grand jury will be issuing no indictments.
As news of the failure of the grand jury to issue indictments
first broke in late January, the radical anti-abortion
movement quickly rushed to put its spin on the story.
Their argument was simple: there are no indictments,
because there is no national conspiracy. They're right.
Under the legal definition, conspiracy occurs when
two or more people plan to violate the law, or plan
to achieve a legal goal through illegal actions, or
plan to achieve an illegal goal through legal actions.
In addition, some act — legal or illegal — must take
place in furtherance of that plan, and there must be
specific intent to violate the law.
Now, having defined conspiracy, let's look at the violence.
Contrary to popular opinion, the violence that the
grand jury has been investigating is not something
new. It dates back to the late 1970s and early 1980s.
By 1983, according to the National Abortion Federation,
13 clinics had been burned, eight bombed, and two people
kidnapped. In 1991 there were two attempted murders;
in 1993 two doctors were killed and one more wounded
by gunfire. In 1994, four people were killed, eight
others narrowly escaped death, seven were sent to the
hospital in a single butyric acid attack, and over
a dozen clinics were torched. In all, there have been
over 200 attempts at arson or bombings — more than
half successful. Clearly, the violence is there. What
about the conspiracy?
In 1993, Paul Hill circulated his "Defensive Action"
statement, which promoted the concept of justifiable
homicide of doctors. Other outspoken advocates of the
doctrine also signed the statement, including Rev.
Michael Bray, a convicted clinic bomber, and Father
David Trosch, a Catholic priest who has been censured
for his efforts to promote murder. Andrew Burnett is
also among the signers; his magazine, the Life Advocate,
is the most influential publication in the radical
wing and openly promotes the justifiable homicide doctrine.
In all, 30 leaders in the radical wing of the movement
signed the statement. Considering the risks involved
in making such a public statement, that's an impressive
— even frightening — number. But agreeing on a doctrine
is not quite the same thing as conspiracy.
In April, 1994, at a meeting in Chicago of approximately
80 leaders in the movement, there was a dramatic split
among attendees, with Paul Hill and his support for
violence at the center of the dispute. At least half
of those in attendance supported Hill. According to
the Pro-Life Action League's Joseph Scheidler, the
founder of the radical wing, "It wasn't just justifiable
homicide; it was [support for] violence, bombing and
arson... I thought, 'Wow, the movement has gone through
some kind of transition.'" According to Operation Rescue
National director Flip Benham, "I went to Chicago because
I had to confront Paul Hill. What he's saying is heresy,
it's sin.... But I think I was in the minority."
In the weeks after the meeting, many on the pro-violence
side of the dispute created the American Coalition
of Life Activists (ACLA), including Andrew Burnett,
David Crane, Roy McMillan, Monica Miller, Michael Dodds,
and Joe Foreman, all of whom signed the Defensive Action
statement (Foreman later had his name removed.) Since
its first public action in August, 1994, the ACLA has
quickly grown to become the most prominent group in
the radical wing. Its main tactic is the harassment
of doctors; it encourages home pickets and "wanted"
posters, offers cash rewards for people who "convince"
doctors to stop performing abortions, and has published
a "deadly dozen" list of doctors being targeted for
special treatment. Its individual members — although
not the ACLA itself — continue to advocate more violent
There are many other individuals, including Florida's
John Burt, who has worked with both Paul Hill and Michael
Griffin, and Shelley Shannon, a convicted arsonist
and attempted murderer who had ties to Burnett, Hill,
Bray, convicted arsonist John Brockhoeft (another Burt
associate), and others, who are also closely allied
with the pro-violence crowd, despite not taking direct
roles in the leadership of the ACLA. It was these people
— the organized groups and the free agents — who were
the focus of the grand jury's investigation.
The grand jury was also looking at the problem from
another direction. After Shelley Shannon's arrest for
the attempted murder of Dr. George Tiller, investigators
turned up significant evidence of her involvement in
violent activities. They also found something even
more interesting — a small book called "The Army of
God." The authorship of the book is not known, but
it has undergone at least three printings, and apparently
has reached wide distribution. The book claims that
the Army of God is a network of people who take violent
action, and it provides careful, step-by-step instructions
for such violence. How bad is it? In the words of the
book itself, "... the answers and tactics described
in the following pages will sound terrifying at best,
and demonic at worst..." That's an understatement,
As far as an outsider can determine, over the last
18 months the grand jury has been made aware that there
is an extensive network of people who advocate violent
action; some of those people work closely together,
and have even formed an organization to promote their
views. They have also seen the Army of God manual,
and know that there are many extremists across the
country who share among themselves the information
and tools necessary to commit extraordinary acts of
violence. Among the other items found in the investigation
of Shelley Shannon is evidence that she herself was
a member of the Army of God, and that she did in fact
work with others in preparing for some of her crimes.
The grand jury has also learned that acts of anti-abortion
violence are common, almost routine, in the United
So why will there be no indictments? Because, despite
all of that, there still isn't a national conspiracy
— in the strict, technical sense. Hill, Bray, Trosch,
Burnett, other signers of the Defensive Action statement,
and other members of the ACLA, may well be advocating
violent action on the part of others. But there is
no evidence that any of them have conspired to commit
acts of violence, other than the ones they themselves
may have been convicted of. They don't need to. The
Army of God may exist, but it's an information- and
equipment-sharing network, not a planning organization.
Its members generally don't know each other. Shelley
Shannon may have had some assistance with planning
her crimes, but purely on a local level. When she told
others of what she had done, it was after the fact,
In order for a national conspiracy to be shown, the
grand jury must find evidence of a proverbial "smoke-filled
room," in which specific acts are planned, or at the
very least, specific individuals are encouraged to
take violent action. They can't find it, because it's
not there. Instead, the advocates of violence have
employed a deliberate, "leaderless resistance" strategy,
in which they promote violence, enable violence, and
expect violence, but plan nothing. For years, the anti-abortion
movement has been priming its followers, preaching
Randall Terry's message "If you believe that abortion
is murder, act like it's murder." The message has been
heard and accepted; the troops are ready. Hill, Bray,
Burnett and the others are simply issuing a call without
caring who answers, as long as, in the end, it is answered.
It's a strategy that works — there are six dead bodies
to prove it. No one ordered Michael Griffin, or Shelley
Shannon, or John Salvi (allegedly), or Paul Hill to
pick up a gun — no one needed to.
Of course, there are the little conspiracies — three
people sitting in a room to plot an attack on their
local clinic, for example. Reports indicate that the
grand jury will be turning over evidence of these conspiracies
to local authorities, and indictments are expected.
But a national conspiracy to commit acts of violence
isn't there, and attempts to find one are doomed to
failure. This does not mean that the pro-choice movement
is without tools in this fight. The famous _NOW_v._
Scheidler_ case is moving forward, attempting to prove
a different kind of conspiracy — harassment and blockades,
rather than arson and murder. In October, a major lawsuit,
seeking damages in the hundreds of millions of dollars,
was filed against the ACLA and several individuals,
claiming that the defendants are threatening, condoning
and promoting violence. These efforts can succeed,
because unlike the grand jury investigation, they have
been guided by people who understand the radical anti-abortion
movement and its tactics.
So let the extremists proclaim "victory." The Department
of Justice may have blown its shot at it, but the pro-choice
movement is just getting started.
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