June 4, 2009

Rachel Maddow last night featured a devastating report on Scott Roeder's overlooked connections to Operation Rescue and his multiple phone conversations with the organization's Cheryl Sullenger in the months leading up to the murder of Dr. George Tiller. She also explored the fact that Roeder had been violating federal laws protecting abortion clinics for some time, and yet authorities had failed to act.

McClatchy has more on the Operation Rescue connection in its report, Operation Rescue adviser helped Tiller suspect track doctor's court dates:

At the time of Roeder’s arrest Sunday afternoon along Interstate 35 in Johnson County, a television station captured the vehicle on video. There on the dashboard was a note that read “Cheryl” and “Op Rescue” with a phone number.

Cheryl Sullenger, senior policy adviser for Operation Rescue out of Wichita, said Tuesday that she has spoken to Roeder in the past, but she said he would initiate the contact. She said she hasn’t had any recent contact with him.

Sullenger served about two years in prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to bomb an abortion clinic in California in 1988. She has since renounced violent action.

She said Roeder’s interest was in court hearings involving Tiller.

“He would call and say, ‘When does court start? When’s the next hearing?’ ” Sullenger said. “I was polite enough to give him the information. I had no reason not to. Who knew? Who knew, you know what I mean?”

Morevoer, as Maddow reported in even more detail, the federal government had the power to stop the terrorism and threats of violence to abortion clinics under the FACE, or Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act. Dr. Tiller's death could have been avoided had the government simply enforced the laws they had on the books. Amy Goodman made the same point in a guest blog on Air America's site, Amy Goodman: Dr. George Tiller Didn’t Have To Die. From the article:

George Tiller did not have to die. He was assassinated while in church in Wichita, Kan., on Sunday, targeted for legally performing abortions. His death might have been prevented simply through enforcement of existing laws. His alleged killer was seen vandalizing a Kansas City clinic, Aid for Women, both the week before and the day before the murder, putting glue into its door locks. The manager of that clinic, who calls himself "Jeff Pederson" to protect his identity, told me he called the FBI and local police both times, but the vandal, the alleged killer Scott Roeder, was not arrested. Pederson had Roeder's first name and his license-plate number. He had images of him on the security video. He recognized him from previous protests.


But Dr. Susan Robinson was adamant. She flies to Wichita every month to perform abortions in Tiller's clinic. She said, "It is generally regarded amongst those who do clinic security, if local authorities are not responsive, if they don't show up or they don't vigilantly enforce the law, that it encourages the anti-abortion people to push it further and further."

She said: "In Wichita, Dr. Tiller was constantly dealing with the same lack of enforcement. Wichita prohibits placing signs on city property. But they allow the anti-abortion protesters to set up dozens of crosses and leave them all day. Dr. Tiller went to the city attorney over the crosses, and complained that people block the clinic driveway. He told me that the city attorney said, ‘I would rather be sued by George Tiller than the anti-abortion folks.' "

The 1994 federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act (FACE) makes it a crime to block or damage a reproductive health service facility.

Enforcing FACE saves lives. George Tiller will be buried on Saturday.

As Rachel reported the FACE Act was enforced under the Clinton administration but was all but ignored once Bush took office. After the murder of Dr. Tiller the question remains as to how the Obama administration will respond. From The Washington Independent:

As Rachel Maddow revealed in chilling detail in her MSNBC news show on Monday night, groups such as Rescue America, Prayer and Action News, Army of God and Operation Rescue Founder Randall Terry all appeared to be celebrating Tiller’s murder on Monday. And while extremists who promote violence against abortion providers could be prosecuted under state and federal law — and particularly under the federal FACE Act — the federal government in recent years has hardly prosecuted any such cases.

According to statistics provided by the Department of Justice, the Bush administration brought only about two criminal prosecutions per year in the entire country under the FACE Act , and never more than four in any single year. The Clinton administration, in contrast, prosecuted 17 defendants for violations of the FACE Act in 1997 alone, and an average of about 10 per year since the law was enacted in 1994. Those cases included one against a woman in 1996 who yelled through a bullhorn to a doctor, “Robert, remember Dr. Gunn. This could happen to you …”, referring to Dr. David Gunn, the first abortion doctor ever murdered, in 1993. In another case, a man who parked a Ryder truck outside a clinic shortly after the bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City, where a Ryder truck had been used to carry explosives, was found to have threatened force. Stalking, arson and bomb threats are also illegal.

Whether the dropoff in prosecutions is because the FACE Act successfully deterred crimes after its enactment or because the Bush administration wasn’t interested in prosecuting them is not clear. “The amount of activity really did drop a lot after FACE was enacted and it was beginning to be enforced,” said Cathleen Mahoney, Executive Vice President of the National Abortion Federation who was an attorney in the Justice Department until 2006. “Certainly the political will wasn’t there.”

That’s disappointed Janet Crepps, deputy director of the legal program at the Center for Reproductive Rights. “I don’t think that the government has done enough,” she said, noting that while the Clinton administration had created a task force in the Department of Justice to coordinate responses to clinic threats and violence, during the Bush years, “we’ve heard that providers during that time would call DOJ for help and get no response.”

Justice Department spokesman Alejandro Miyar said Tuesday that the task force still exists, and in a statement released after the fatal shooting of Dr. Tiller, Attorney General Eric Holder said that “[f]ederal law enforcement is coordinating with local law enforcement officials in Kansas on the investigation of this crime.” It remains to be seen, however, whether the government will also investigate the anti-abortion activists who threaten abortion providers and may have worked with the actual murderer.

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