Two anti-abortion activists now face criminal charges brought by the Attorney General of California, alleging they secretly and illegally made controversial videos subsequently blamed for a spike in abortion clinic violence.
David R. Daleiden, 28, and Sandra S. Merritt, 63, were charged Tuesday in San Francisco Superior Court with 14 felony counts of eavesdropping and secretly recording conversations with Planned Parenthood representatives and other abortion providers.
In a related development, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Wednesday that the secret video tapes show no evidence of criminal conduct, upholding a lower court, civil case ruling barring Daleiden and his fake company from further dissemination of the material.
The video recordings, widely criticized for deceptive editing, were released in mid-2015 by the Center for Medical Progress, founded by Daleiden, with ties to some of the hardest-line anti-abortion extremists and groups associated with clinic and provider violence.
The videos accused Planned Parenthood of illegally selling “body parts from aborted fetuses,” prompting death threats to some healthcare providers and calls to discontinue all federal funding of Planned Parenthood. The issue crept into the 2016 presidential campaign.
The so-called “fetus body parts” videos also were believed responsible for an increase in violence and extremism, including arson fires that damaged or destroyed at least four Planned Parenthood clinics and a murderous rampage resulting in three deaths in November 2015 at an abortion clinic in Colorado Springs, Colo.
Charging documents filed by California Attorney General Xavier Becerra allege Daleiden and Merritt set up a fictitious medical research company, BioMax Procurement, and obtained phony drivers licenses to attend the National Abortion Federation 2014 conference in San Francisco.
At that conference and later restaurant meetings in Los Angeles and Pasadena with women’s healthcare providers, the pair used secret recording devices to tape conversations with 14 individuals in violation of California law, the charges allege.
“The right to privacy is a cornerstone of California’s Constitution, and a right that is foundational in a free democratic society,” Becerra said in a statement. “We will not tolerate the criminal recording of confidential conversations.”
In January 2016, Daleiden and Merritt were charged in Texas by a grand jury initially empanelled to investigate whether a Planned Parenthood clinic had sold body parts of aborted fetuses. Instead, the jury panel indicted Merritt and Daleiden, but those charges later were dismissed for legal technicalities.
Merritt was represented in the Texas case by Liberty Counsel, an anti-abortion, anti-LGBT non-profit law firm headed by Mathew “Mat” Staver and his wife, Anita Staver.
Liberty Counsel also apparently also will defend her against the new criminal charges in California, although a notice of appearance hasn’t yet been filed.
“The California Attorney General has overstepped the law by bringing these baseless charges,” Staver said today in a statement. “Ideology should not trump the law, but I am afraid that is what happened in the state’s charges. Our client did not violate any law.”
The federal appeals court ruling in the civil case affirms the issuance of a preliminary injunction obtained by the National Abortion Federation (NAF). Importantly, the ruling also says the video tapes show no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
“Given the district court’s finding, which is supported by substantial evidence, that the tapes contain no evidence of criminal activity, and its recognition of several states’ ongoing ‘formal efforts to secure the NAF recordings,’ the preliminary injunction carefully balances the interests of NAF and law enforcement,” the 9th Circuit ruling said.
The injunction prohibits Biomax Procurement Services LLC, the Center for Medical Progress (CMP), Daleiden, and Troy Newman from releasing recordings and materials they illegally obtained at NAF’s educational meetings.
Newman is a CMP board member and president of Operation Rescue, a hard-line anti-abortion group that claimed it aided the CMP in its “investigation” of the sale of body parts from aborted fetuses.
Vicki Saporta, NAF president and chief executive officer, said Daleiden and Merritt have engaged in a “long-running conspiracy” and a “smear campaign” that has put abortion providers at risk.