HOUSTON (AP) - An anti-abortion activist’s plan to reject a plea deal offering probation for charges related to making undercover Planned Parenthood videos likely means his goal is to use a trial as a public platform to criticize the nonprofit, according to legal experts.
David Daleiden surrendered to authorities, posted $3,000 bond and made two court appearances Thursday on the felony and misdemeanor charges he faces before prosecutors offered him pretrial diversion, a form of probation that would keep him out of prison and ultimately have the charges dismissed.
But Terry Yates, one of Daleiden’s attorneys, said Daleiden isn’t interested in accepting the plea offer and is prepared to head to trial if he can’t quash the indictment.
“The only thing we’re going to accept right now is an apology,” he said.
The pretrial diversion, also offered to Daleiden’s co-defendant and fellow activist Sandra Merritt, is the “right thing to do” and a common offer for first-time nonviolent offenders, Harris County District Attorney’s Office spokesman Jeff McShan said. But he also said prosecutors are ready to proceed to trial and that “our case is strong.”
Attorneys for Merritt, who turned herself in Wednesday and was freed on $2,000 bond, have not indicated whether the 62-year-old would take the probation offer. One of them, Dan Cogdell, didn’t reply to phone calls seeking comment Thursday.
After his court appearances, Daleiden briefly spoke to about 30 cheering supporters who had gathered at a rally outside the courthouse in Houston, thanking them for their support and saying there will come a day “when there is no longer a price tag put on human life.” The 27-year-old, who’s described himself as a “citizen journalist,” also criticized Texas authorities for not prosecuting Planned Parenthood.
The decision by Daleiden and his legal team to not accept the plea offer likely means the activist wants to use a trial to promote his cause, said Joel Androphy, a Houston defense attorney not connected to the case.
“If they take a plea, then their whole purpose of doing this goes down the tubes,” he said. “This is about a mission. The mission is to show Planned Parenthood did something wrong. Even though they are on trial, they are going to be prosecuting Planned Parenthood during their defense.”
Most defendants who are offered pretrial diversion would likely accept such an offer, said Melissa Hamilton, a visiting criminal law scholar at the University of Houston Law Center, “but the case here is a little different.”
“At least what the individuals have been saying is they want this to be their new platform to battle the system,” she said.
Androphy said while Daleiden wants a trial, prosecutors probably want to settle the case as quickly as possible.
“This is a purely political issue and they don’t want to get involved in it, I’m sure,” he said.
Planned Parenthood spokesman Eric Ferrero said Thursday that “the wheels of justice have only begun to roll,” and that the group doesn’t “expect this to be the last time these extremists are booked and fingerprinted.”
He also said Planned Parenthood hopes other law enforcement agencies pursue charges as well.
Both Daleiden and Merritt, who are from California, were indicted Jan. 25 on a charge of tampering with a governmental record, a felony punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Daleiden also was indicted on a misdemeanor count related to purchasing human organs that carries up to a year in prison.
Attorneys say the pair plans to plead not guilty. Daleiden and Merritt are each set to appear in court March 28.
The district attorney’s office initially launched a grand jury investigation to look into Planned Parenthood after the undercover videos, released in August, indicated that the nation’s largest abortion provider could be illegally selling fetal tissue to make a profit.
The grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood of misusing fetal tissue, opting instead to indict Daleiden and Merritt, who made the videos and are accused of using fake driver’s licenses to get into a Houston clinic.
The video footage showed them posing as representatives of a company called BioMax, which purportedly procured fetal tissue for research. Planned Parenthood has said the fake company offered to pay the “astronomical amount” of $1,600 for organs from a fetus. The clinic said it never agreed to the offer.
Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, who has been criticized by anti-abortion groups since the indictments, has said while she is personally against abortion “my personal belief does not relieve me of my obligation to follow the law.”
Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at www.twitter.com/juanlozano70
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