What We Know About the Charges Against the Pro-Life Hidden Camera Activists

A grand jury in Texas cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing related to the disposal of fetal tissue, and instead indicted the organization's undercover accusers.

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Jan 26 2016, 10:30pm

Courthouse of Harris County, Texas, where the activists were indicted. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

David Daleiden and Sandra Merritt, anti-abortion activists with the California-based Center for Medical Progress, were indicted in Harris County, Texas, Monday, when a grand jury investigating accusations of wrongdoing against Planned Parenthood instead found sufficient evidence to charge the two pro-life advocates who made secret videos of the women's health organization. The grand jury cleared Planned Parenthood of any wrongdoing.

The indictment alleges that in the course of infiltrating a network of Planned Parenthood clinics and research organizations, Daleiden and Merritt tampered with government records. At some point, according to the indictment, the pair created fake California IDs for fraudulent aims, a felony with a possible 20-year sentence attached.

In July of last year, Daleiden, who casts himself as a "citizen journalist," released the first part in a series of hidden camera web videos called "Human Capital," in which a high-ranking doctor working for Planned Parenthood spoke casually over dinner about the transfer of fetal tissue. Text overlaid on the footage implies that Planned Parenthood is accepting money in exchange for baby parts—which would be unquestionably illegal—rather than donating the tissue, and allowing donors to cover the costs involved which is legal.

The videos provoked a media firestorm last year, dominating American political discourse for several months. Republicans in the House of Representatives launched an investigation into Planned Parenthood, and used the controversy as an excuse to once again try to take away the organization's federal funding. Many of the 2016 presidential candidates also weighed in publicly on the controversy. Robert Dear, the alleged shooter in the November rampage at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood rampage reportedly told officers "no more baby parts," a slogan many have speculated was inspired by the undercover videos.

Until this point, Daleiden has been notable among anti-abortion activists for his lack of a criminal record. As VICE previously pointed out, his style of activism is somewhat unusual among his pro-life peers, relying less on religious outrage and displays of emotion, and more on the cold details of legal and ethical arguments. In addition to the felony government records tampering charge, he now faces a misdemeanor charge related to the sale of human tissue.

In a Facebook response to the indictment, the Center for Medical Progress took issue with that charge in particular, noting that "buying fetal tissue requires a seller as well."

The indictment is perhaps surprising, given Texas' hardline stance against Planned Parenthood in the wake of the videos' release. Late last year, Texas cut off Medicaid funding for the women's giant, prompting Planned Parenthood to sue the state. State investigators have since raided the organization's clinics in Texas, demanding patient records to ensure that Medicaid was not being accepted.

Harris County District Attorney Devon Anderson wrote in a statement that he was "called upon to investigate allegations of criminal conduct by Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast," but added that he and the jurors "must go where the evidence leads us."

The investigation was carried out by theTexas Department of Criminal Justice, which answers to Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott who in October accused Planned Parenthood of the "gruesome harvesting of baby body parts." In a statement Monday, Abbott del he's not done looking for evidence of Planned Parenthood's misconduct.

"Nothing about today's announcement in Harris County impacts the state's ongoing investigation," Abbott said. "The State of Texas will continue to protect life, and I will continue to support legislation prohibiting the sale or transfer of fetal tissue."

In a separate legal proceeding, Planned Parenthood is suing Daleiden and Merritt for racketeering, and he's receiving legal council from Thomas More Society, a pro-life legal group. The Thomas More Society, a conservative public interest law firm, is representing Daleiden in the racketeering case, but representatives from the firm would not say Tuesday whether they will be handling his criminal defense.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter.

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