U.S. District Judge William Orrick has limited the scope of the trial to determining whether David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt committed fraud and trespassed when they presented themselves as fetal tissue harvester company officials in order to gain entry to medical conferences and interview Planned Parenthood employees in 2014.
Mr. Daleiden and Ms. Merritt, both members of the pro-life group Center for Medical Progress, in 2015 posted online videos of Planned Parenthood workers and officials discussing fetal tissue sales, an outlawed practice. The nation’s largest abortion provider filed the federal lawsuit in January 2016.
“It is not about the truth of whether plaintiffs profited from the sale of fetal tissue or otherwise violated the law in securing tissue for those programs,” Judge Orrick wrote in jury instructions. “It is not about whether any plaintiff actually engaged in illegal conduct. Those issues are a matter of dispute between the parties in the world outside this courtroom.”
In an interview with The Washington Times, Mr. Daleiden said the upcoming trial is about defending First Amendment rights in exposing the abortion industry.
“You know at the end of the day what’s happening here is that free speech and free reporting are going on trial in San Francisco,” said Mr. Daleiden, who founded the Center for Medical Progress in 2013.
Planned Parenthood originally had sought $20 million in damages for fraud and trespassing. In July, Judge Orrick reduced potential damages to $100,000, ruling that the reproductive health provider could not seek to bill Mr. Daleiden and his organization for the costs of security upgrades at clinics in the aftermath of the videos going viral.
“The case has been massively cut down in all directions, which has good and bad aspects to it,” Mr. Daleiden said. “Overall, it’s kind of a positive because it recognizes that this really isn’t a real lawsuit [and] that Planned Parenthood doesn’t really have a case.”
Planned Parenthood did not respond to a request for comment.
In its lawsuit, Planned Parenthood says the covertly filmed videos violate California’s law requiring consent by all parties to be recorded. It says the videos led to a 2015 shooting at a Planned Parenthood clinic in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where three people were killed and nine others were wounded.
Defense attorneys argue that Mr. Daleiden, Ms. Merritt and others were acting as investigative journalists who were working to inform law enforcement of wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood in trying to profit on the sale of fetal body parts. No criminal charges have been brought against the abortion provider.
According to Judge Orrick’s jury instructions, some legal issues already have been decided: The defendants are liable for trespassing and fraudulently breaking vendor agreements in their undercover work at the National Abortion Federation’s 2014 meeting in San Francisco. They interviewed Planned Parenthood doctors there and at restaurants in Los Angeles in 2014 and 2015.
The judge said the jury’s task will be to decide whether any harm came from the trespassing and whether any damages should be assessed.
According to preliminary court filings, both sides will be allowed to discuss in a limited manner the merits of research using fetal tissue. A tentative schedule shows that the first witness — an official with the National Abortion Federation — is expected to testify on Friday.
The civil trial is expected to last through early November.
A separate, criminal case against Mr. Daleiden also is headed to trial. The state of California has charged him with violating privacy and eavesdropping laws in secretly filming Planned Parenthood officials. Mr. Daleiden could face prison time in that case.
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