Federal judge sentences 4 anti-abortion activists for a 2021 Tennessee clinic blockade

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Four anti-abortion activists who were convicted in January on felony conspiracy charges for their roles in a 2021 Tennessee clinic blockade were sentenced this week to terms ranging from 6 months in prison to three years of supervised release. The sentences were below those asked by prosecutors, and U.S. District Judge Aleta Trauger said she took into account the good works of the defendants in their communities.

While the judge recognized their actions were based on sincerely held religious beliefs, she said that was not an excuse to break the law. The defendants used their religious fervor to “give themselves permission to ignore the pain they caused other people and ignore their own humanity,” Trauger said.

Around 200 supporters, including many parents with children, rallied and prayed outside the federal courthouse in Nashville before the sentencing hearings Tuesday and Wednesday. They also packed a courtroom where the proceedings were relayed over a livestream, filling the benches and spilling onto the floor and into the hallway.

The convictions stem from a blockade at the Carafem reproductive health clinic in Mount Juliet, Tennessee, a town 17 miles (27.36 kilometers) east of Nashville, nearly a year before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. The organizers used social media to promote and livestream actions they hoped would prevent the clinic from performing abortions, according to testimony. They also intended the video as a training tool for other activists, Trauger found.

At the time, abortion was still legal in Tennessee. It is now banned at all stages of pregnancy under a law that has very narrow exemptions.

In total, 11 people were convicted of offenses related to the blockade. The four sentenced this week were among six people convicted of both violating the federal Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act and more serious felony conspiracy charges for their roles as organizers. Attorneys for the defendants have argued that prosecutors went too far in charging them with a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $260,000.

In the end, Trauger ordered much lighter sentences. Paul Vaughn and Dennis Green received three years of supervised release. Coleman Boyd was given five years of probation. Calvin Zastrow, who was considered one of the main organizers, was given a 6-month prison sentence followed by three years of supervised release. Boyd, the only one of the four who Trauger said could afford it, was ordered to pay a $10,000 fine.

Trauger earlier agreed to postpone sentencing until September for the two remaining felony convictions. Heather Idoni and Chester Gallagher were preparing for an August trial in Michigan on similar charges. Idoni is currently serving a 2-year sentence for a 2020 clinic blockade in Washington, D.C.

One defendant, Caroline Davis, who pleaded guilty in October to misdemeanor charges and cooperated with prosecutors, was sentenced to three years of probation in April. Four others were convicted in April of misdemeanor violations for blocking the main clinic door so that no patients were able to enter. Police asked them to leave or move multiple times, but they refused and were eventually arrested. They were scheduled to be sentenced on July 30 and face up to six months in prison, five years of supervised release, and fines of up to $10,000, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Tennessee.

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