One of two antiabortion activists charged by a grand jury last month in connection with filming covert videos at a local Planned Parenthood surrendered Wednesday and appeared outside court to applause from supporters who clutched homemade signs calling her a "pro-life hero."
"She has broken no laws," attorney Mat Staver said of client Sandra Merritt as she stood outside the county courthouse in downtown Houston after being booked. "We believe this case should be dismissed and that she should never have been indicted."
Merritt declined to comment, standing silently beside her attorneys as they explained her position.
Staver said Merritt was "doing anything a journalist would do to get information to the public."
Merritt, 62, an employee at the Irvine-based antiabortion nonprofit Center for Medical Progress, was indicted Jan. 25 on a felony charge of tampering with a governmental record, as was the director of the center, David Daleiden, 27.
She planned to return home to California on Wednesday after posting bond, said Staver, founder of the Orlando-based conservative law firm Liberty Counsel.
According to indictments, Merritt and Daleiden used fake California driver's licenses to gain entrance to Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast and covertly film on April 9, 2015; their most recent video using that footage was posted online Tuesday. If convicted, they face a fine of up to $10,000 and a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.
Daleiden is also charged with a misdemeanor count related to purchasing human organs punishable by up to a year in jail and a $4,000 fine related to an email he sent last June offering to pay Planned Parenthood $1,600 per specimen of fetal tissue, authorities said.
Daleiden's bail was set at $11,000, and he is expected to surrender Thursday morning.
Merritt's bail was initially $10,000, but that was reduced to $2,000. Her next court date is March 28. She has been offered pretrial diversion, but her attorneys said they are still negotiating with prosecutors to have the charges dropped.
"We believe we will prevail," Staver said.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Atty. Gen. Ken Paxton have said the state is still investigating Planned Parenthood. Merritt's supporters said they hope the charges against her are dropped.
"We think it's a real travesty of justice that the undercover journalist was indicted and not Planned Parenthood," said Christine Melchor, 64, director of the Houston Coalition for Life, who was among those greeting Merritt with signs saying, "I stand with Sandra Merritt."
Planned Parenthood officials applauded the pair's prosecution.
"The wheels of justice have only begun to roll. We don't expect this to be the last time these extremists are booked and fingerprinted," said Eric Ferrero, a spokesman for Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "We're glad they're being held accountable, and we hope other law enforcement agencies pursue criminal charges as well."
He disputed the pair's contention that they acted as journalists.
"They didn't document wrongdoing -- they fabricated it. We don't know of any journalists who have engaged in wire fraud and mail fraud, lied to multiple government agencies, tampered with government documents and broken laws in at least four states -- only to lie about what they found. It's hard to imagine anyone calling that 'journalism,'" Ferrero said.
The grand jury that charged the activists found no wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood Gulf Coast, which cooperated with the investigation.
Pictures of the activists' fake licenses — as well as phony business cards and brochures — were provided to San Francisco federal courts by the National Abortion Federation and Planned Parenthood when they filed civil lawsuits against Daleiden, Merritt and the Center for Medical Progress during the last year. The plaintiffs demanded that the activists be barred from releasing videos "illegally obtained" using fake IDs.
The videos sparked national outrage and investigations by state officials and Republican-led committees in Congress. So far, none of the investigations has uncovered wrongdoing by Planned Parenthood.
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