10 defendants over DC abortion clinic blockade found guilty

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Defendants guilty Face Act
Attorneys arrive at the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in Washington in this file photo from Aug. 28, 2023. Paula "Paulette" Harlow, aged 75 and the last of 10 defendants on trial for a 2020 "lock and block" invasion of a Washington abortion clinic was convicted Nov. 16 of federal civil rights conspiracy and violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act, following a bench trial at the E. Barrett Prettyman U.S. Court House. (OSV News photo/Kevin Wurm, Reuters)

WASHINGTON (OSV News) — The last of 10 defendants on trial for a 2020 “lock and block” invasion of a Washington abortion clinic was convicted Nov. 16.

Paula “Paulette” Harlow of Kingston, Massachusetts, was found guilty in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia of federal civil rights conspiracy and violation of the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, or FACE Act, following a bench trial.

At 75, she is the oldest of the 10, and was permitted home confinement. Eight others are jailed in Alexandria, Virginia, awaiting sentencing, which is expected in January, on the same charges. On March 1, a 10th defendant, Jay Smith of Freeport, New York, entered a guilty plea and is serving a 10-month sentence.

On Aug. 29, a jury convicted Lauren Handy of Alexandria; John Hinshaw of Levittown, New York; Heather Idoni of Linden, Michigan; William Goodman of Bronx, New York; and Herb Geraghty of Pittsburgh. On Sept. 15, a separate jury convicted Jonathan Darnel of Arlington, Virginia; Jean Marshall of Kingston; and Joan Andrews Bell of Montague, New Jersey.

All nine face up to 11 years in prison, three years of supervised release and a fine up to $250,000 each.

Obstructing clinic access

The blockade at Washington Surgi-Clinic, called a “lock and block” because outside gates are locked and inside doorways are blocked, took place Oct. 22, 2020. Darnel livestreamed the blockade on Facebook.

A statement from the U.S. attorney’s office said the defendants “forced their way into the clinic,” injuring a nurse. “The blockade forced one patient to climb through a receptionist window to access the clinic, while another was denied entry as she lay in physical distress in the hallway outside.”

In a statement, Kristen Clarke, an assistant attorney general in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, said the convictions “send a strong message that such criminal conduct against reproductive health care providers and patients will not be tolerated, and the perpetrators will be held accountable.”

“The whole problem with the trials of these pro-lifers is that according to the judicial system, the unborn simply do not exist,” said Monica Miller, an activist with the Michigan-based Red Rose Rescue and a friend of Harlow’s, in a statement to OSV News. “The violence of abortion is ignored. Thus. Paulette Harlow had no real defense, because the innocent victims of abortion have no defense.”

Prominent activists

Handy gained worldwide fame not from the blockade, but from her March 2022 press conference in which she said she had stored five unborn children (in the fetus stage of development) in a refrigerator after recovering a box of 115 from a medical waste disposal truck.

In November 2022, Handy and three others, calling themselves Progressive Anti-Abortion Uprising, received 45-day sentences for obstructing operations of an abortion clinic in Flint, Michigan, in 2019. She also received a 30-day sentence for trespassing at an Alexandria abortion clinic in 2021.

Bell, a longtime Catholic activist, is considered a pro-life icon for her participation in Operation Rescue decades ago and her willingness to endure long terms of incarceration after clinic blockade and trespassing convictions. Her husband, Christopher, is president and executive director of the New Jersey-based Good Counsel Homes for unwed mothers.

On its web page, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division lists two criminal cases similar to the one in Washington, involving clinic blockades in Detroit and the Nashville, Tennessee, area in 2021. However, one The Washington case is the first to go to trial.

The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act

The FACE Act, adopted in 1994, imposes serious penalties on those convicted of “violent, threatening, damaging, and obstructive conduct” that interferes with access to health care providers. While it has often been applied to abortion clinics, the Justice Department is also using it to prosecute attacks on pregnancy help centers, charging four defendants in January for FACE Act offenses for vandalizing Florida pregnancy resource centers and intimidating their staff.

The FACE Act has come under political criticism recently, but a repeal is considered unlikely in the near term.

A resolution introduced by Rep. Chip Roy, R-Texas, and 25 House Republicans and sponsored by Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, in the Senate in September called the FACE Act an unconstitutional weaponized use of federal power.

In a statement accompanying the resolution, Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., a co-sponsor and co-chair of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, said the FACE Act “prescribes harsh, mean-spirited punishments when pro-life individuals engage in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience — the staple of the human rights and civil rights movements.”

Kurt Jensen

Kurt Jensen reports for OSV News from Washington.