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Charges Dismissed Against Activists Who Went Undercover At Houston’s Planned Parenthood

Harris County dropped the two remaining criminal charges against anti-abortion activists from California. The case drew attention to the use of fetal tissue in medical research, and raised concerns about the involvement of abortion clinics in procuring the tissue.  

Florian Martin / Houston Public Media
A Harris County grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood of breaking the law.

David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt each faced a felony charge in Harris County stemming from their April 2015 visit to the Houston headquarters of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast.

The undercover videos they made in Houston, along with footage recorded in Colorado and California, led to dozens of local, state and federal hearings and investigations. Planned Parenthood has not been charged with any wrongdoing.

The felony charge in Harris County involved tampering with a government document, because Daleiden and Merritt each used fake driver's licenses to take a tour of the Houston clinic, posing as employees of a tissue procurement agency.

After the videos were released online last summer, Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson began an investigation of Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast. But a grand jury cleared the organization of wrongdoing and instead indicted Daleiden and Merritt in January. (Daleiden was also charged with a misdemeanor for attempting to buy human organs. A judge dismissed that charge in June.)

Attorneys for the pair had planned to argue Tuesday morning in court that the felony charges should also be dropped. But the hearing never took place, because prosecutors quickly filed their own motion to dismiss the charges.

"I'm really pleased that the First Amendment rights of all citizen journalists have been vindicated," Daleiden said.

"I think the dismissal of all the charges here in Texas today sends a strong message about the fact that we didn't do anything wrong," he added.

The reason listed in the motion to dismiss was the possibility that a "colorable claim" could be raised in court regarding the indictments, because the grand jury that issued the indictments had done so during an extension of its term.

District Attorney Devon Anderson's office released a brief statement: "The grand jury took the investigation where the facts led it, however Texas law limits what can be investigated after a grand jury extension order is issued. In light of this and after careful research and review, this office dismissed the indictments."

An attorney who has worked with Planned Parenthood, Randy Schaffer, called the reasoning "totally weak."

Anderson's team could have easily taken the case to a new grand jury and gotten a new indictment, Schaffer said.

"The fact that the state chose not to do that tells me that the decision to dismiss the indictment was a political decision and not a legal decision," Schaffer said.

Anderson is a Republican up for re-election in November.

"Devon Anderson was catching a lot of heat behind the scenes for indicting the case and I think the word from the party was ‘Get rid of this. We do not want these people prosecuted,'" Schaffer said. "So the D.A.'s office needed a way to make it look like it was for legal reasons, as opposed to political reasons."

A spokesman for Anderson had no comment on that theory, and said she was not doing interviews.

In a statement, Melaney Linton, Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast's CEO, said although the charges were dismissed, the videographers still lied and committed fraud.

"They spread malicious lies about Planned Parenthood in order to advance their anti-abortion agenda," Linton wrote. "The decision to drop the prosecution on a technicality does not negate the fact that the only people who engaged in wrongdoing are the extremists behind this fraud."

In addition to Harris County, officials in thirteen states launched investigations into claims that Planned Parenthood profited from fetal tissue donation. All the states cleared Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing. Texas officials also launched investigations, but have not announced any results or conclusions.

In California, Daleiden is still fighting three separate civil lawsuits related to the videos.

"It's not over yet, but everything is moving in the right direction," Daleiden said. Despite the legal troubles, the campaign was a success, he said.

"There have been over 12 million views of these videos on YouTube alone, and it's completely changed how we talk about abortion and talk about unborn children in our country," Daleiden said. "I think it's also changed the public's perception of Planned Parenthood."