The grand jury investigating Wichita abortion provider George Tiller adjourned Wednesday afternoon without a criminal indictment.
Retired Sedgwick County District Judge Paul Buchanan, assigned to preside over the grand jury, said the panel returned a finding of “no true bill,” meaning criminal charges would not be filed.
The grand jury was convened in January through a petition drive by anti-abortion groups seeking an investigation into whether Tiller violated state abortion laws.
In a statement released by the Sedgwick County District Attorney’s Office, the grand jury said:
“After six months of conducting an investigation that included hearing extensive witness testimony, reviewing volumes of documents and medical records of patients of Women’s Health Care Services (Tiller’s clinic), this Grand Jury has not found sufficient evidence to bring an indictment on any crime related to the abortion laws.”
Lee Thompson, a lawyer for Tiller, said the Wichita grand jury had received 160 records from the clinic — the result of a lengthy legal battle that found its way to the Kansas Supreme Court.
The state’s highest court limited the number of records the grand jury could subpoena and still protect the privacy of women who had abortions after 22 weeks of pregnancy.
The grand jury indicated in its statement that it struggled with a complex Kansas law regulating late-term abortions.
The law says that after 22 weeks of pregnancy, doctors must first determine if a fetus can survive outside the womb. If a fetus is determined viable, then an abortion can be performed only if two independent doctors determine that carrying the pregnancy to term would cause “substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function.”
The Kansas Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court have interpreted that to include the mental health of the woman.
The grand jury said it found “questionable late-term abortions” but said Kansas law needs to be clearer before any investigation is likely to yield criminal charges against Tiller’s clinic.
“As the current law is written and interpreted by the Kansas Supreme Court, late-term abortions will continue for many circumstances that would seem, as a matter of common interpretation, not to meet the definition of ‘substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function,’ ” the grand jury said in its statement.
Tiller is one of only a handful of doctors in the country who perform late-term abortions.
The law allows doctors to make medical decisions, Tiller’s lawyers said.
“To a lay person, it could be indigestion,” Tiller’s lawyer, Laura Shaneyfelt, said, “but to a trained medical professional it could be a heart attack.”
Thompson commended the grand jury for not “substituting a common interpretation or personal feelings” for the law.
A spokeswoman for Kansas Attorney General Stephen Six said the grand jury’s statement validated his office’s decision to pursue only 19 misdemeanor charges against Tiller.
In a case filed last year, Tiller stands accused of not getting a second opinion from an independent physician, but rather one tied to him financially. Tiller has denied any wrongdoing in those cases.
Those charges await a ruling by Sedgwick County District Judge Clark Owens before continuing to trial.
Following Wednesday’s decision, an anti-abortion group said the government isn’t aggressive enough in limiting Tiller’s practice.
Kansans for Life, which led the petition drive for the grand jury, blamed Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston for not giving the grand jury proper legal guidance.
Mary Kay Culp, Kansans for Life’s executive director, said her organization would work to help re-elect Phill Kline, an anti-abortion advocate, as district attorney in Johnson County and to defeat Foulston, who is up for re-election here.
“The law doesn’t need to be changed. The enforcers of the law need to be changed,” Culp said.
A Johnson County grand jury under Kline’s guidance returned a similar finding in March. Kline blamed the judge presiding over the grand jury for its finding that no criminal charges were appropriate against an abortion clinic run by Planned Parenthood.
Dan Monnat, a lawyer on Tiller’s legal team, said the repeated attempts against Tiller ultimately cost the public.
“It’s unfortunate for the taxpayers of the state of Kansas who again and again have to endure the expense of these investigations over someone else’s political agenda,” he said.
All content © 2008 THE WICHITA EAGLE and may not be republished without permission.
By RON SYLVESTER