As Wichita lawyer Dan Monnat prepared to hear a jury’s verdict in late March**, he received notice of the latest threat against his client, abortion provider George Tiller.
The Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office had heard a rumor of a plan to throw battery acid at Tiller in the courtroom if the jury acquitted him on 19 misdemeanor counts of performing illegal late-term abortions.
Deputies formed a wall behind Tiller and his defense team and the courtroom gallery.
“It was heroic of them,” Monnat said. “And I know some of them may have disagreed with some of the politics involved, but they had no hesitancy to protect people during the trial.”
Little more than a month later, on May 31, Tiller was dead, shot inside his church.
For the first time since the shooting, Monnat sat down to talk about his relationship with Tiller and the five years of legal battles they fought.
“He was the kind of client who was always willing to listen to our advice and uncompromising in his innocence,” Monnat said.
The April trial
The jury took only 25 minutes in April to declare Tiller not guilty of violating a law governing how doctors obtain second medical opinions on some late-term abortions.
As a spring blizzard began to form outside, jurors were anxious to be escorted by deputies to their vehicles. But the six jurors told Judge Clark Owens they wanted to send Tiller a message.
“They are very happy to know that there is someone with a clean, safe, secure facility, where women can have an abortion without having to go to the back alleys or hotel rooms like they used to,” Monnat remembered the jury’s message.
Anti-abortion rights activists had a different view of the verdict.
“Justice has been denied,” Troy Newman president of Operation Rescue said afterward.
“We are committed to continuing our efforts to bring Tiller to justice, and we are confident that justice will one day prevail,” added Cheryl Sullenger, also of Operation Rescue.
The day after Tiller’s killing, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder ordered increased security for abortion clinics.
Federal authorities have said they will investigate a possible conspiracy in Tiller’s killing.
Monnat said he noticed a change in federal reaction to perceived threats at Tiller’s clinic after President Obama took office.
The Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances, or FACE Act, authorizes federal authorities to protect abortion clinics.
“I think there had been other requests during the previous administration for Dr. Tiller’s clinic to be protected under the FACE Act and nobody had done anything,” Monnat said.
But when a vandal attacked Tiller’s clinic, Women’s Health Care Services, on May 1, Monnat said they got a different reaction.
Lee Thompson, another of Tiller’s attorneys, contacted federal authorities, who said they would investigate. But before the investigation could get far, Tiller was dead and the clinic closed.
The vandalism in May was different than what the clinic had seen before, Monnat said. Security cameras and lights were disabled in the parking lot. The roof was tampered with, allowing rain to seep into the clinic and damage it.
“It showed a little more cloak-and-dagger planning and sophistication than the other acts of random vandalism,” Monnat said.
Hearing the news
Monnat is known for working nights and weekends. He was at his desk Sunday morning, May 31, talking to his partner Stan Spurrier when the phone rang.
Monnat made a note of the time: 10:50 a.m. It was Eagle reporter Tim Potter.
“Dan, I don’t know if you’ve heard this and I really apologize if I’m the first one to let you know… have you heard anything?” Monnat remembered Potter saying.
“No, Tim, what’s going on?” Monnat said.
“Well, I heard Dr. Tiller has been shot,” Potter said.
Monnat said he thought of the 1993 shooting in which Tiller was wounded.
“I hoped this would be just like the other one, some crackpot who didn’t know how to shoot, and he’s just wounded and will be fine,” Monnat said.
This time, Tiller died.
Monnat said he called his wife, Grace, who was working at their house, then called other lawyers who might be in danger.
“Who knew how concerted an attack this might be?” he said.
Laura Shaneyfelt, a lawyer in Monnat’s office, called police and asked them to go to Thompson’s church. Both Thompson and his daughter, Erin, had represented Tiller.
“We didn’t want something else happening at… church,” Monnat said.
The lawyers were affected by Tiller’s death.
“You look over your shoulder more than you used to,” Monnat said.
Since Tiller’s death, Monnat has heard people accuse anti-abortion groups of contributing to the killing because of their graphic rhetoric.
Monnat became familiar with the terms “Tiller the Killer” and references to the clinic as performing “baby massacres.”
But Monnat remembers a recent trip to London with his 80-year-old father-in-law from China.
Monnat said his father-in-law wanted to go to Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park.
“He told me he’d heard about that in China, and it seemed unbelievable that there was a place in the world where you could say what you want without being arrested,” Monnat said.
Monnat doesn’t favor limiting free speech.
“You don’t want to fly off the handle and make a rash restriction on speech that really is embraced by First Amendment freedoms that we’ve fought so hard for,” he said.
Still, Monnat has questions about possible connections between the shooting and the protests.
Groups including Operation Rescue immediately denounced Tiller’s killing. But a number to contact Operation Rescue was reportedly found on the dashboard of a car driven by Scott Roeder, who is charged with first-degree murder in Tiller’s death.
Roeder apparently had multiple contacts with the anti-abortion group and had attended Tiller’s trial.
Operation Rescue has said Roeder was not a member of the organization, had not donated money to it, had not worked as a volunteer and was not active at events.
Monnat said he wonders whether Roeder was affected by years of investigations into Tiller’s practice by former Attorney General Phill Kline, and the eventual criminal charges against the doctor.
“The history of targeting Dr. Tiller as a criminal… makes you realize the awesome power prosecutors wield,” Monnat said.
He pointed to Sedgwick County District Attorney Nola Foulston, who drew the ire of abortion opponents when she asked a judge to dismiss the original charges Kline filed against Tiller.
Foulston wasn’t involved in the subsequent cases.
“As everything played out, she was right,” Monnat said of Foulston.
For five years, Monnat saw Tiller portrayed as a possible criminal. And he asks:
“Who knows what the motivation of a hate crime killer is?” Monnat said. “Is it hate, or is it hate fueled by the perception that justice has been thwarted by a jury’s acquittal?”
**CORRECTION: We originally gave the wrong month for the Tiller verdict.
Reach Ron Sylvester at 316-268-6514 or [email protected].
All content © 2009 THE WICHITA EAGLE and may not be republished without permission.
By RON SYLVESTER