Get the best of Monitor journalism in your inbox.

How Planned Parenthood became 'victims of a crime' in hidden camera case

A grand jury in Harris County cleared Planned Parenthood's Gulf Coast affiliate and indicted David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, in a courtroom twist that surprised many.

Pat Sullivan/AP
A Planned Parenthood clinic is seen on Tuesday in Houston. A Houston grand jury investigating undercover footage at the Houston clinic found no wrongdoing Monday, by the abortion provider, and instead indicted anti-abortion activists involved in making the videos that targeted the handling of fetal tissue in clinics and provoked outrage among Republican leaders nationwide.

The accusers are now the accused in the case of the hidden camera videos that purportedly show Planned Parenthood staff in Texas discussing the sale of aborted fetal tissue – a crime in the United States if done for profit. The anti-abortion activists who captured the controversial footage last year now face criminal charges.

A grand jury in Harris County cleared Planned Parenthood's Gulf Coast affiliate and indicted David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, in a courtroom twist that surprised many. Both are charged with using fake driver's licenses, and Mr. Daleiden is charged with violating Texas' law against the purchase and sale of human organs – the same law he accused Planned Parenthood of breaking – based on his email to Planned Parenthood in which he sought to buy fetal tissue. Their lawyers say they have done nothing wrong.

To arrive at this turn of events, Planned Parenthood's legal counsel says cooperation was the name of the game.

"We certainly began the process as suspects of a crime, and the tables got turned and we ended up victims of a crime," Josh Schaffer, a Houston lawyer representing the women's healthcare provider, told Reuters.

Mr. Schaffer said shortly after Planned Parenthood hired him last summer, he initiated a "dialog" with prosecutors in Harris County, which encompasses most of Houston, about the details of the case, and maintained communication throughout the investigation, which lasted two months.

Schaffer said his clients volunteered documentation and invited prosecutors to question employees and tour its Houston clinic. Also critical to the investigation was the grand jury's focus, which changed course and started looking at the anti-abortion activists, Schaffer said on a conference call with reporters, adding he received that information from a prosecutor.

Planned Parenthood made prosecutors aware that Daleiden and Ms. Merritt supplied fake driver's licenses in April 2015 when they entered a Houston clinic claiming to be executives from a nonexistent company as they secretly captured conversations on film in the facility. That revelation is what led to the charges that they used fake government documents with the intent to defraud.

The videos that incited the probe were produced by Daleiden's Center for Medical Progress, which describes itself on its website as "a group of citizen journalists dedicated to monitoring and reporting on medical ethics and advances." Planned Parenthood has maintained its innocence, and initiated an outside study that said the videos had been deceptively edited.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson, the prosecutor in the case, last summer pledged a "thorough investigation" and a prosecution to the full extent of the law "should we find that laws were broken." Campaign material from her 2014 race for district attorney described her as a "proud, pro-life Texan mother of two." In a statement on Monday she said: "All the evidence uncovered in the course of this investigation was presented to the grand jury. I respect their decision on this difficult case."

Peter Breen, Daleiden's defense attorney, says his client was using journalistic practices, and could not have cooperated with Texas authorities' as extensively as Planned Parenthood without surrendering his rights as an investigator. 
Terry Yates, a Houston lawyer representing Merritt and Daleiden, told reporters the grand jury's indictments "are legally and factually insufficient and are not going to hold up under the weight of the law."

This report contains material from Reuters.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.