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 action.
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, at best.
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 States.
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, not beforehand.
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.
Adam Guasch-Melendez, a Washington, D.C.-based clinic escort, maintains the Abortion Rights Activist page on the world-wide web.