Emotions ran high over the past few weeks as reproductive rights activists watched United States v. Lauren Handy et al., play out in federal court. On Tuesday, a federal jury convicted five anti-abortion defendants of federal civil rights offenses in connection with a reproductive healthcare clinic invasion and blockade in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 22, 2020. According to the Department of Justice, defendants were each convicted of a felony conspiracy against rights and Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act offense. Each defendant faces a potential penalty of 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release, and a fine of up to $350,000.
The case marks the first time the Justice Department charged anti-abortion activists with a violation of the civil rights conspiracy statute, in conjunction with the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act—a historic moment in the ongoing fight to hold anti-abortion extremists accountable for their unlawful behavior.
“This important victory vindicates the rights of women, patients and abortion providers across the country,” said duVergne Gaines, director of the Feminist Majority Foundation’s National Clinic Access Project.
The civil rights conspiracy statute prohibits “two or more persons conspiring to injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any person … in the free exercise or enjoyment of any right or privilege secured to him by the Constitution or laws of the United States.”
Lauren Handy, 28, of Alexandria, Va., and eight other co-conspirators were indicted for planning and executing the invasion and blockade of a Washington, D.C., abortion clinic on Oct. 22, 2020. On Tuesday, a jury found Handy; John Hinshaw, 67, of Levittown, N.Y.; Heather Idoni, 61, of Linden, Mich.; William Goodman, 52, of Bronx, N.Y.; and Herb Geraghty, 25, of Pittsburgh, Pa., guilty in the first case.
Feminist Majority (FM) spearheaded the research and policy analysis in the development of the FACE Act in 1994, which forbids “violent, threatening, damaging and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain or provide reproductive health services.” (Note: FM is the 501(c)(4) arm of the Feminist Majority Foundation, publisher of Ms.)
A trial for the four remaining defendants begins next week.
Background on Defendants
Handy, a self-proclaimed “leftist,” was one of the main organizers of the D.C. clinic blockade. She became dedicated to the harassment of abortion clinics and patients after dropping out of college in 2012 and working for Jeff White and his extremist anti-abortion organization, Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust.
White is a leader in the most extreme sector of the anti-abortion movement and is a convicted felon, as Ms. reported in 2019. White and his son pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit healthcare fraud against Affordable Care Act programs. The two defrauded health insurance companies of $27 million, likely using a portion of this money to fund anti-abortion extremism.
White also served as Operation Rescue’s national tactical director. Operation Rescue is an anti-abortion group that began their work in the 1980s, staging mass blockades to close clinics across the country and prompting Feminist Majority to create the National Clinic Defense Project in response.
According to her own testimony, Handy worked for White for seven years, demonstrating her deep involvement in the extremist wing of the movement.
Handy herself is no stranger to breaking the law. She was previously convicted and sentenced to 30 days in jail for trespassing at a clinic in Alexandria and spent 45 days in jail for obstructing a clinic in Flint, Mich. Handy has been involved with organizing and leading invasions and blockades of clinics since before 2017.
Hinshaw, Idoni, Goodman and Geraghty have all been deeply involved in the anti-abortion movement. They each joined Handy in the plan to blockade the D.C. clinic and traveled from states across the country to carry out the invasion.
The defense team consisted of lawyers associated with the Thomas More Society—a conservative Catholic public interest law firm that promotes an anti-abortion and homophobic agenda through litigation. They are also known for their efforts in former President Donald Trump’s baseless “Stop the Steal” campaign, filing cases in an attempt to overturn the results of the election.
Blockade of D.C. Clinic
On Oct. 22, 2020, Handy and her group targeted the Washington SurgiClinic, intimidating staff and patients and blocking them from accessing reproductive healthcare.
Handy used a fake name to book an abortion appointment to determine the time abortions would be performed and help the defendants gain access inside the clinic. Geraghty, Hinshaw, Idoni and Goodman hid in the fire escape stairwell of the fourth floor, where the clinic was located, lying in wait.
When the main door was unlocked to let patients, including Handy, in for her “appointment,” the defendants breached the entrance and forcefully shoved their way inside, injuring a nurse and terrifying patients and staff. They then moved clinic furniture and chained themselves to each other and large chairs in order to blockade the door leading to the exam rooms while livestreaming the whole event on Facebook.
Two patients at the clinic gave harrowing testimony in court describing their experiences. Shandy Holler (a pseudonym) and her husband traveled from Ohio to receive an abortion in D.C. Tragically, Holler’s pregnancy had been diagnosed with a fatal fetal anomaly. She was in severe pain when she arrived at the clinic the morning of the blockade. Security footage shows Holler’s husband begging the defendants to let her through to be treated, and Holler collapsed on the ground. Defendant Herb Geraghty had told the couple that the clinic was not performing abortions that day and that Holler should go to an emergency room—denying her access to critical medical care.
A second patient, Ashley Jones (also a pseudonym), recounted being immediately confronted by the defendants in the building lobby and followed down the hallway and inside the elevator. They grabbed and yelled at her as she attempted to enter the clinic. She can be seen in the security footage crying, “Why are you doing this to me?” Desperate, Jones was forced to climb onto a counter and dive through the receptionist’s window to get away from the defendants and access medical care.
The defense argued Handy and the other defendants did not conspire ahead of time to block access to the clinic and did not actually block access at all—despite weeks of planning, chaining themselves to furniture to create a blockade and standing in front of the doors, refusing to move.
One of the anti-abortion activists, Caroline Davis, agreed to a plea deal with the government and testified against the defendants. Davis traveled from Michigan with Idoni to participate in the takeover of the clinic. Davis testified that Handy led the activists through the plan to blockade the clinic the night before and explained the risk of arrest and consequences of violating the FACE Act.
“The people who do these blockades feel their religious beliefs and personal beliefs supersede the law,” Davis testified.
The prosecutors even showed a Facebook message from Jonathan Darnel, another individual involved in the blockade, to Handy: “The idea of deliberately breaking the law is sexy.”
The day of the blockade, Handy posted on Facebook encouraging people to join her. She posted that a “traditional lock and block rescue [is] happening now” and “people are acting as human shields” to prevent access to abortion care. The abortion clinic was unable to provide services for over three hours. Police had to saw off the bike locks from the defendants’ necks and physically carry out those who went limp upon arrest.
Inside the Courtroom
Both anti-abortion activists and abortion-rights supporters showed up to watch the trial.
On the first day of jury selection, anti-abortion protesters stood outside courthouse doors where prospective jurors often enter, and passed out fliers with misinformation about the abortion clinic and so-called “live birth abortions.” Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly had to issue a warning to the defense team that this could be considered jury tampering.
The gallery in the courtroom was filled with anti-abortion extremists, as well as an occasional nun and priest praying the rosary and reading Bible verses. During witness testimonies, a nun made the sign of the cross toward a witness while she was on the stand and prayed her rosary. The nun also approached her in the hallway and said a Hail Mary to her face during a break in testimony. The judge once again had to give a warning about appropriate behavior during a trial and banned the nun from returning to the courtroom for her intimidation of a witness.
Gaines, who attended the trial, commended government prosecutors for mounting the case. “The government put together a powerful avalanche of evidence for the jury to consider—the testimony of a co-conspirator, three brave clinic workers, two courageous patients, text messages of defendants, police cam footage, masterful cross examinations of defendants who took the stand, and the defendant’s own live stream footage and facebook posts.”
Gaines said she hopes the indictments and guilty verdicts are “a turning point and will send a clear message that these extremists can no longer operate with impunity. We hope there will be many more successful prosecutions.”
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