Pro-lifers face over a decade behind bars for sit-ins
Their trial begins this week in Nashville, Tenn.
Jury selection begins Tuesday in the trial of six pro-lifers who organized and participated in activism that temporarily shut down a Tennessee abortion facility in March 2021. The pro-lifers face the possibility of up to 11 years in federal prison and $250,000 in fines for charges related to the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act, a federal law passed in 1994 in reaction to pro-life sit-ins at abortion facilities.
The Nashville, Tenn., case is one of three involving conspiracy charges and hefty punishments for pro-life “rescues” at abortion facilities. In trials last summer and fall, Washington, D.C., juries found nine pro-lifers guilty of conspiracy and FACE Act violations for participating in similar activism at a local abortion facility. The defendants are in custody as they await sentencing and the possibility of 11 years in prison.
Here’s a rundown of this week’s case on trial in Tennessee.
What are the charges?
In its original indictment, the U.S. Department of Justice charged 11 pro-lifers involved in a March 2021 sit-in at the Carafem Health Center in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., outside of Nashville.
A two-hour livestreamed video of the event shows a group of about 20 individuals, including some children, standing and sitting in a white-walled hallway in front of the entrance to a medical suite at about 8 a.m. on a Friday. The individuals alternate between singing, praying, reading Scripture, and discussing plans for the sit-in, some occasionally stepping away to talk with police officers or women who have arrived at the facility. When police tell them to leave, they continue to sing. Members of the group block the doors of the facility when people—likely patients and employees—attempt to get in.
The federal government charged seven of the participants with conspiring against the right to obtain reproductive health services protected in the FACE Act and with violating the FACE Act itself. The violations involved blocking the entrance to the abortion facility and interfering with patients and staff, charges that amount to a misdemeanor and a maximum of one year in prison. But conspiracy is a felony charge, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Six of the pro-lifers charged under these counts are on trial this week.
An additional four activists face only the misdemeanor charge for the Mount Juliet activism. They will go to trial at a later date.
Who are the defendants?
The six defendants on trial this week are Coleman Boyd, Chester Gallagher, Dennis Green, Heather Idoni, Paul Vaughn, and Calvin Zastrow. According to the 2022 Justice Department news release announcing the indictment, they came from states including Michigan, Mississippi, and Virginia to participate in the rescue, with Gallagher and Vaughn coming from towns near Nashville. The defendants’ ages range from early 50s to mid-70s.
Idoni, a grandmother, was one of the nine defendants found guilty of conspiracy for participating in the Washington sit-in. Law enforcement transported her from the Washington area, where she was in custody, for this week’s trial.
The Justice Department also charged Idoni in the third FACE-related conspiracy case out of Michigan, along with Zastrow and Gallagher. In the three cases, she could face as many as 33 years in prison while the two men could be locked up for a maximum of 22 years for their participation in the Tennessee and Michigan sit-ins.
Eva Edl and Eva Zastrow, two of the defendants charged only with misdemeanors in the Tennessee case, will be on trial for conspiracy in the Michigan case, too. Edl is a nearly 90-year-old survivor of a communist concentration camp. Eva Zastrow is in her 20s.
The two remaining pro-lifers who received misdemeanor charges in the Tennessee case are James Zastrow and Paul Place, both also in their 20s.
What happened to the 11th defendant?
The original indictment also charged Caroline Davis, a woman in her 20s, with conspiracy and FACE Act violations. She faced identical charges for participating in the Michigan sit-in, meaning she could have been imprisoned for up to 22 years if found guilty in both cases.
Davis ultimately accepted a deal from the government, agreeing to plead guilty in exchange for reducing her felony conspiracy charges to misdemeanors in both the Tennessee and Michigan cases with a maximum punishment of probation rather than imprisonment or a fine. She appeared as one of the government’s witnesses in the Washington trial.
Davis was a friend of Eva Zastrow’s and accompanied Eva’s father, Calvin Zastrow, on mission trips to Ukraine. But in her testimony at the Washington trial, she called the pro-life rescue movement “culty” and has used other disparaging terms to describe the movement, according to court documents. Those documents also indicate that she will appear in the Tennessee trial as a witness for the government.
What’s happened in the case so far?
In recent weeks, the parties in the case filed motions in attempts to dictate what information will appear in the trial. Attorneys for the pro-lifers requested that the court prevent Davis from using disparaging terms to refer to the defendants in her testimony and from referring to the Michigan case involving the defendants. On Wednesday, the court granted the pro-lifers’ motion that employees and a patient of the abortion facility testify using their real names instead of pseudonyms.