WICHITA, Kan. (AP) -- An anti-abortion activist accused of threatening a Wichita doctor who was training to offer abortions will have to face a jury after failing to show the issue is so incendiary that jurors cannot impartially decide her case, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.
U.S. District Judge J. Thomas Marten granted the government's belated request for a jury trial against Angel Dillard. The Valley Center woman had wanted a judge, rather than a jury, to decide her case, arguing it will be difficult for jurors to set aside strong feelings about her association with Dr. George Tiller's murderer.
The judge said that the parties have ample time to prepare for the Feb. 5 trial.
"No strong or compelling reason exists to justify removing from the hands of the jury the resolution of the facts of this case," Marten wrote in his decision.
The Justice Department has sued Dillard under a federal law aimed at protecting access to reproductive services. Jurors will have to decide whether the letter Dillard sent to Dr. Mila Means last year constitutes a "true threat" intended to intimidate the doctor from providing abortion services.
In her letter, Dillard wrote that thousands of people from across the United States are already looking into the doctor's background.
"They will know your habits and routines. They know where you shop, who your friends are, what you drive, where you live," the letter said. "You will be checking under your car every day -- because maybe today is the day someone places an explosive under it."
Abortions have not been openly performed in Wichita since Tiller, one of the nation's few late-term abortion providers, was fatally shot in May 2009 by anti-abortion activist Scott Roeder as the physician served as an usher at his Wichita church.
"There is probably ... no issue more emotionally charged and divisive than the abortion issue," the defense argued its filing. "This type of case is especially ill-suited for a jury, particularly in the environment which plaintiff alleges is a large part of this case -- the stress, turmoil, chaos and public conflict that exists in Wichita over this issue."
Means has testified her fears were heightened after reading a news story by The Associated Press that quoted Dillard in a July 2009 interview, saying she had developed a friendship with Roeder while he was awaiting trial.
"With one move, (Roeder) was able ... to accomplish what we had not been able to do," Dillard told AP at the time. "So he followed his convictions and I admire that."
In his ruling Tuesday, Marten refused Dillard's request to dismiss her case because Means is not presently providing abortion services. The judge also rejected a move by Dillard to countersue the government for allegedly violating her First Amendment rights.
The lawsuit -- filed by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division under the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act -- seeks a court order that keeps Dillard from contacting Means or coming within 250 feet of Means, her home, car or business. It also seeks damages of $5,000 to Means and a civil penalty of $15,000.
Dillard had contended that the government had interfered with her access to a religious institution because the proposed barrier zone might prevent her from attending a church near the clinic.
Marten said that any claim under the First Amendment would be premature since the court can tailor any resulting remedy to preserve Dillard's rights.