HOUSTON >> Texas prosecutors on Tuesday dropped the last remaining charges against two California anti-abortion activists who made undercover videos of themselves trying to buy fetal tissue from Planned Parenthood, agreeing with the defense's argument that the grand jury exceeded its authority by investigating the activists after clearing Planned Parenthood of wrongdoing.
District Judge Brock Thomas dismissed the tampering with government records charges against David Daleiden, 27, and Sandra Merritt, 63, at the request of the Harris County prosecutor's office.
"The grand jury took the investigation where the facts led it, however Texas law limits what can be investigated after a grand jury extension order is issued," District Attorney Devon Anderson said in a statement. "In light of this and after careful research and review, this office dismissed the indictments."
Anderson, a Republican who ran as a "proud, pro-life Texan mother of two" during the 2014 election, supported the charges when they were handed down in January, stressing at the time that at the outset of the investigation, she stated that "we must go where the evidence leads us." That didn't sit well with many members of her party.
Defense attorneys said the activists never should have been charged. And Merritt and Daleiden, who founded a group called the Center for Medical Progress, had rejected plea deals offering them probation.
"I'm glad the First Amendment rights of all citizen journalists have been vindicated today," Daleiden said after the hearing. "And I would just note that Planned Parenthood is still under investigation by the United States Congress, as they should be, because they are the real criminals in this matter."
Prosecutors alleged that Daleiden, from Davis, California, and Merritt, from San Jose, California, used fake driver's licenses to conceal their identities from Planned Parenthood during the 30-month undercover video operation. They said the two posed as representatives of a fake biomedical company and sought to show that Planned Parenthood illegally sold parts of aborted fetuses to researchers.
Texas authorities initially began a grand jury investigation of Planned Parenthood after the undercover videos were released last August. But the grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood of misusing fetal tissue and instead indicted Merritt and Daleiden, who said he was working undercover as a journalist to expose illegalities in the handling of fetal tissue.
Terry Yates, one of Daleiden's lawyers, said the prosecutor's office agreed with their contention that the grand jury improperly used its extended term to further investigate the case, meaning it "didn't have jurisdiction."
"Regardless of however it came, we're happy today this matter is over," he said.
Merritt wasn't at the hearing. Asked if the dismissal could be considered to be based on a technicality, her lawyer, Dan Cogdell, said it didn't matter.
"As long as my client gets a dismissal, I don't care what they call it," he said. "But she really was not guilty."
Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, in a statement, said just because the charges were dropped, it doesn't mean the defendants were innocent. President and CEO Melaney Linton said Planned Parenthood "has been cleared of any wrongdoing time and again," and that activists like Daleiden "spent three years creating a fake company, creating fake identities, and lying."
"When they couldn't find any improper or illegal activity, they made it up ... in order to advance their anti-abortion agenda. The decision to drop the prosecution on a technicality does not negate the fact that the only people who engaged in wrongdoing are the extremists behind this fraud."
The organization has said it never has and never would sell fetal tissue.
Melissa Hamilton, a University of Houston criminal law scholar, said Tuesday's outcome "doesn't mean this is the end of the road."
"If the district attorney is right that it was beyond limitations of the (grand jury) extension, that's not vindication," she said. "It's simply procedural.
"It doesn't mean a current grand jury couldn't consider it. The only thing to prevent individuals from being indicted on the same or similar charges would be the statute of limitations on whatever particular charges they are looking at."
But Murphy Klasing, who represented Daleiden in the earlier misdemeanor count, said for Harris County prosecutors to continue to press the case "would look like a witch hunt."
"If I was asked to place a bet, this is over," he said.