In January, a grand jury in Harris County, TX, indicted Center for Medical Progress (CMP) founder David Daleiden and associate Sandra Merritt on a felony count for “tampering with a governmental record” as well as on a separate misdemeanor charge for “illegally offer[ing] to purchase human organs.”
Daleiden and Merritt were accused of using fake California driver’s licenses in order to gain access to a Planned Parenthood affiliate in Houston. They used the access to secretly film inside and later release a deceptively edited video alleging Planned Parenthood employees were involved in the illegal sale of donated fetal tissue. A judge dismissed the misdemeanor charge in June on a technicality regarding “language left out of the original indictment.” The judge wrote that the indictment “does not include both that Daleiden intended to buy, sell or acquire human organs in violation of the law, and that he isn’t subject to a legal exception that allows medical entities to recoup expenses for obtaining or transporting organs.”
On July 26, prosecutors moved to drop the felony counts against Daleiden and Merritt, citing the “limits” to what evidence a grand jury can investigate after being granted an extension order.
The Houston Press’ Meagan Flynn reports in an article headlined “Why The Dropped Charges Against The Anti-Abortion Activists Is Not A 'Vindication'” that the case was not dismissed because of arguments about Daleiden’s “First Amendment” rights, as he has proclaimed, but rather on narrow, and somewhat unusual, technical grounds. From the Houston Press (emphasis original):
Almost immediately after prosecutors decided, abruptly, to drop charges against the anti-abortion activists who infiltrated a Planned Parenthood facility in Houston using fake IDs, conservatives pro-lifers were calling it a “vindication.” Even though the charges were dropped because of technicalities.
When a Harris County grand jury investigated the case, it cleared Planned Parenthood entirely and instead indicted Daleiden and Merritt in January for their shady tactics, prompting outrage from conservatives across the country. The Center For Medical Progress, the group the activists really worked for, said in a statement: “The Center for Medical Progress uses the same undercover techniques that investigative journalists have used for decades in exercising our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and of the press.”
When the Harris County District Attorney's Office let them off the hook not because of the merits of the case, but because of technical procedural issues, supporters of Merritt and Daleiden considered it a validation of their defense. After the hearing, Daleiden told reporters, “I'm glad the First Amendment rights of all citizen journalists have been vindicated today.” (To be clear, all journalists learn in J-school 101 that using fake IDs to “go undercover” will land you jail time, not a Pulitzer, which we discussed with a law professor in January.)
Melissa Hamilton, a visiting criminal law scholar at the University of Houston Law School, said that this case “isn't a vindication for anybody.” And, she said, what's strange about this entire case is that the technicalities used to drop both Daleiden's solicitation of the sale of fetal tissue charge and the tampering with government records charges are rarely ever seen. “Cases are dropped all the time for procedural issues—but not these,” she said.