Verdicts based on narrow grounds, but seen as a step in the right direction

There was pandemonium both inside and outside the courtroom after Judge E.G. Hachborn revealed his decision at the conclusion of the arduous three-day trial of Linda Gibbons, Ken Campbell and Anneliese Steden March 1.

Initially, polite applause greeted Hachborn’s statements that he was dismissing all charges laid against the three in relation to demonstrations outside the “Scott Clinic” abortuary in Toronto last September. However, moments after the judge left the courtroom, participants and spectators alike erupted into an outpouring of joy, cheering and embracing each other.

Special attention was focused on Linda Gibbons – who walked out of the prisoner’s cage a free woman for the first time in almost six months – and defence lawyers Blaise MacLean and Paul Vandervet, whose brilliant legal manoeuverings during final summations secured Gibbons’s release and the exoneration of Campbell and Steden.

The celebration became so raucous that the boisterous bunch was asked to leave the floor by court security officers. Leaving the shopping mall that adjoins the courts at the College Park complex in downtown Toronto, the group moved its revelry to the city’s main thoroughfare, Yonge Street, drawing the attention of numerous, curious passersby.

“If ever there was a court case which was superintended by the God of Heaven, this one was it!” said Campbell, whose strong showing earlier in the day on the witness stand thwarted the Crown’s attempts to depict him and other pro-life protesters as being at least passively malevolent towards women seeking abortions at the Scott Clinic.

“Each of us sought God and each of us responded,” he added. “We thank God for Paul and for Blaise.”

Steden, meanwhile, was at a loss for words. “I’m totally overwhelmed,” she said. “I didn’t expect this at all. I haven’t quite taken it in, that this has actually happened.”

Gibbons, still clad in garb issued by the Toronto-West Detention Centre, was a little less exuberant. “As far as the ongoing struggle to get the injunction removed, the victory today does not stop us from having to suffer further repression by the system,” she said.

Hachborn had ruled that charges of disobeying a peace officer laid against the three were being dismissed because, in Gibbons’s case, the Crown had failed to prove that her arrest had taken place during the abortuary’s “business” hours, as required by a court injunction protecting certain Ontario abortuaries. In the matters of Campbell and Steden, Hachborn said a sheriff was not present during their arrests, as required under Section 141(b) of the Courts of Justice Act.

MacLean and Vandervet had raised just those arguments during their final summations before Hachborn, clearly throwing off the case of Crown attorney Jennifer Crawford, who had been distracted by other arguments earlier in the trial that focused on challenges to the constitutionality of the injunction, and on certain controversial statements made by arresting police officers.

During his testimony, Campbell said he was “quite startled” by the manner in which he and Steden were arrested last September – without a sheriff present. “I assumed that was what was required by law,” he said.

He then recounted to the court his recollection of an arresting police officer’s statements (confirmed in earlier testimony) that the chief Crown attorney for the Toronto region, Paul Culver, had directed Toronto police not to charge pro-life demonstrators with disobeying a court order (which would have entitled them to a jury trial and the opportunity to challenge the constitutionality of the court injunction), so as to prevent giving pro-lifers a “platform” to express their views.

In cross-examination, Crown attorney Crawford then pressured Campbell to admit he and other pro-life demonstrators were there to persuade women not to have abortions, but Campbell failed to take the bait and instead stuck to his position that he and others were there to offer women informed choices on abortion.

Steden in her testimony told the court that she also overheard the statements at the police station relating to preventing pro-lifers from getting a platform for their views. Like Campbell, she stressed that she was present outside the Scott Clinic to offer women real choices on abortion.

During impassioned final summations, Vandervet stressed that a sheriff has to read the text of an injunction every time he or she witnesses a violation, and can’t assume that a violator has heard it already.

“It (the injunction) should be enforced exactly the way it’s supposed to be,” he argued. “The arresting process (of Campbell and Steden) was improper.”

MacLean, at times pounding his desk with his fist for emphasis, contended that for the injunction to have been valid against Gibbons, it would have had to have been proven that her demonstration took place during the Scott abortuary’s “business” hours. “Anyone is free to protest in any way, shape or form, as long as it is not during business hours,” he said. “There has been no evidence of what the business hours of the clinic were. The Crown’s case is silent on that issue. Who knows what the business hours of the clinic are? No one from the clinic has come to testify.”

He also argued that Gibbons’s passive conduct in no way constituted obstruction of a peace officer.

Crown attorney Crawford, clearly disoriented by MacLean’s last-minute arguments, argued that the arrests of the demonstrators took place during weekday morning hours, and that police on the scene were satisfied that the abortuary was open for business after they spoke to its manager.

In reply to Vandervet, Crawford suggested that it is not necessary for a sheriff to read the text of an injunction each time a person violates it, but rather that one reading of it should be valid for the rest of the day. She added that Gibbons’s sitting down and refusing to leave the injunction zone after being ordered to, constituted obstruction of a peace officer.

Hachborn then called a tension-filled recess before revealing his decision, setting off the celebrations that followed it.

Once the jollity had died down, however, the difficult questions relating to the completed court case raised their heads, especially: where do we go from here? And how do pro-lifers follow up on the suggestions of improper conduct on the part of Crown attorney Culver and Ontario Attorney-General Charles Harnick?

As Gibbons pointed out, the dismissal of the charges did little to improve pro-lifers’ lot in that the injunction remains in place and will, presumably, be used again the next time an activist dares to step inside the protected “bubble zones” around certain abortion facilities.

“Even if we are acquitted in court, it does not free us from police harassment when we have to go through it the next time,” Gibbons said.

“Neither does it free us from legal costs. This (injunction issue) should be allowed to go to the high court to get redressed. The injunction shouldn’t be there.”

Gibbons noted that during labour’s Days of Action against the public-service cutbacks of Ontario’s Mike Harris government in recent years, protesters regularly broke various injunctions issued against them, yet no one was ever arrested. “It seems like there is a special set of justice for certain views,” she said.

“We should get justice when we’re arrested,” she added. “We’ve been swept under the legal carpet. I’ve sat in jail for six months. To have to wait that long to find out that the arrest was improper – that is repressive.”

Gibbons nonetheless lauded Hachborn’s decision . “I think this judge realized that this is a freedom-of-speech issue. I think what summed it up was (MacLean’s) statements that ours is a free society with views that are free to be presented. If one set of views is allowed to be presented, and another is repressed as criminal, then we are no longer a free society.”

She said the situation will improve if enough judges see as Hachborn did.

“You don’t need injunctions in addition to existing laws, if the existing laws are not being violated. The law is not there to secure the profits of hired assassins.”

Gibbons indicated she will likely be back offering counsel to women outside Toronto abortuaries at some point in the near future (“I’m sort of waiting on the Lord’s direction, but it’s leading in that way”), whether that counselling involves violating an injunction or not.

Steden, for her part, said the court case served as “an impetus” around which pro-lifers wearied by persecution at all levels could rally around. “God wants us to have new courage and optimism.

“He gives us enough to take a break, rejoice and keep going,” she said.

“I’m very grateful,” she added. “I want people to follow my example … We have to stay in their face about the injunction. The government is being unjust.”

She confirmed that she will be back outside a Toronto abortuary in the future, “but I’m not revealing the day.”