Opening the door for claims across the nation, a federal jury relying on a racketeering law aimed at the mob said threats and violence used by anti-abortion leaders amounted to extortion.
Defense attorneys immediately promised an appeal of Monday's decision that could cost the movement millions of dollars. Anti-abortion leaders said protests would go on, though one said demonstrations may become more "prayerful.""This is the biggest courtroom defeat for the anti-abortion movement ever," said Fay Clayton, a National Organization for Women attorney who fought to keep the class-action lawsuit alive through 12 years of pre-trial skirmishing.
The jury of two men and four women returned its verdict against activists Joseph Scheidler, Andrew Scholberg and Timothy Murphy as well as two anti-abortion groups, the Pro-Life Action League and Operation Rescue.
Following a six-week trial before U.S. District Judge David Coar, the jury found that the defendants banded together in a nationwide extortion campaign based on violence and threats designed to force clinics to close.
The jury awarded $86,000 in damages, but the amount will be tripled to $258,000 because the lawsuit was filed under the federal Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organizations law, known as RICO. And perhaps 1,000 other clinics across the nation will now be eligible to seek triple damages.
"They want to bankrupt us - there's no question about that," Scheidler, executive director of the league, said as he left court.
Cardinal Francis George of Chicago called the decision "unjust" and said the archdiocese might join in the appeal.
"The decision in this case effectively equates freedom of speech with racketeering," he said. "If the courts had been used to stop the organized sit-ins at lunch counters throughout the South in the '60s, there would have been no civil rights movement."
Coar scheduled another hearing for Wednesday.