Pro-life activist Mark Houck was found not guilty Monday by a federal jury of charges stemming from an altercation outside a Planned Parenthood clinic in Philadelphia, signaling a victory for the pro-life movement in its feud with the Justice Department.
Mr. Houck, 49, was charged in September with violating the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act in an October 2021 skirmish with a Planned Parenthood volunteer escort, even though local authorities declined to pursue the case and a judge tossed a civil lawsuit.
A visibly relieved Mr. Houck said outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia that he was grateful for his family, his attorneys and “the justice that we feel was finally served.”
Thomas More Society Executive Vice President Peter Breen, who had accused the Justice Department of “pure harassment,” said the defense was “thrilled with the outcome.”
“This is a win for Mark and the entire pro-life movement,” Mr. Breen said. “The Biden Department of Justice’s intimidation against pro-life people and people of faith has been put in its place.”
Mr. Houck faced up to 11 years in prison and fines of up to $350,000 if he had been found guilty of shoving the Planned Parenthood volunteer twice outside the clinic.
SEE ALSO: Justice Dept. brings pro-life activist Mark Houck to trial amid claims of abortion double standard
His attorneys argued that the escort confronted him and yelled at his 12-year-old son as they conducted sidewalk counseling, even though they were at least 50 feet from the clinic.
The outcome was a rebuke to the Justice Department’s crackdown on pro-life activism after the Supreme Court’s decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta acknowledged that focus.
In a December speech, she said the high court’s ruling “dealt a devastating blow to women throughout the country, taking away the constitutional right to abortion and increasing the urgency of our work, including enforcement of the FACE Act, to ensure continued lawful access to reproductive services.”
Mr. Houck was charged with two counts of violating the FACE Act, which prohibits “violent, threatening, damaging and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain, or provide reproductive health services.”
During Friday’s closing arguments, Justice Department attorney Sanjay Patel cast Mr. Houck as the aggressor in the confrontation with Bruce Love, the longtime Planned Parenthood volunteer who was then 72.
“This trial isn’t about viewpoints. It’s not about people’s views on reproductive health,” Mr. Patel said, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It’s about an aggressive man who used his size and his youth to shove a grandfather because the clinic provides services he opposes.”
Mr. Houck testified that Mr. Love targeted his son, telling the boy, “Your dad is a bad man” and “Your dad hates women,” the Bucks County Courier Times reported.
The Justice Department has filed FACE Act charges in the past year against nearly 30 pro-life activists, prompting accusations of selective prosecution and political bias, which the department has denied.
Nearly 80 pro-life pregnancy centers and offices have been attacked since the Supreme Court’s draft opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked on May 2. The first two federal arrests in those cases were made last week.
Pro-life advocates cheered the jury’s verdict in favor of Mr. Houck, whose case became a rallying cry on the right after armed FBI agents swarmed his rural home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and arrested him in front of his wife and seven children.
“The Biden Department of Justice approved an early morning raid on his home and ruthlessly sought to prop him up as an example to assuage the pro-abortion mob,” said CatholicVote President Brian Burch. “Meanwhile, pro-life pregnancy resource centers and churches are under widespread violent attack and yet, to date, the federal government has taken almost no meaningful action in their defense.”
Rep. Andy Biggs, Arizona Republican, said that “Biden’s DOJ raided Mark’s home — in front of his children — on sham charges.”
“They treated Mark like a domestic terrorist because of his faith,” Mr. Biggs tweeted. “This type of intimidation has no place in America.”
CompassCare CEO James Harden, whose pro-life pregnancy center in New York was firebombed in June, said the “raids of Houck and others by the FBI along with the phony FACE Act indictments by the DOJ make a mockery of the justice system.”
“Thankfully, the jury has come to a correct unanimous verdict of innocent,” Mr. Harden said. “It is irresponsible for Attorney General Merrick Garland and U.S. Attorney Sanjay Patel to continue abusing the resources of the justice system by attacking peaceful pro-life people who simply seek the protection of all lives equally.”
Mr. Breen told reporters outside the courthouse that he hoped the Justice Department would reevaluate its FACE Act prosecutions of pro-life activists based on the jury’s verdict. He said the case “never should have reached trial.”
“Our hope here is that a message was sent to Washington, D.C., to stop this harassment of sidewalk counselors who are just trying to provide alternatives to those who are facing an abortion decision,” Mr. Breen said. “I hope again this will be one of those points where a change is made so no one else will have to suffer the same way that Mark and his family have had to suffer.”
The Justice Department did not comment immediately after the verdict was announced.
The trial began Tuesday and jurors began deliberations Friday, but they left for the weekend after being unable to reach a verdict.