The alleged misdemeanor act took only a few seconds. And it was caught on video, which would seem to have sealed the case.
But it took nearly a month to complete the trial of Jeff White, an antiabortion activist accused of committing a crime by taking hold of a jar containing a fetus during a protest outside a Planned Parenthood clinic.
Abortion protester Jeff White confronted D.C. police Lt. Gary Durand after a fetus in a jar was confiscated during a protest last year.
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And when the judge finally delivered his decision yesterday in D.C. Superior Court, it was not the verdict that prosecutors had wanted
Magistrate Judge J. Dennis Doyle acquitted White, saying that his grasp of the jar was too fleeting to conclusively demonstrate that he was breaking a century-old statute prohibiting the display of a dead body or a part of a dead body.
"It just doesn't do it beyond a reasonable doubt," Doyle told the two sides.
The ruling came nearly a year after White's arrest outside a Planned Parenthood clinic on 16th Street NW, where he and others were holding a counter-demonstration to an abortion rights rally on the Mall. Prosecutors charged White, a 47-year-old lay minister from Lake Arrowhead, Calif., with keeping and exposing a dead body or body part.
The judge said the law, enacted in 1901, was part of the statutes governing cemeteries and appeared to be intended to deal with health issues that could arise if a dead body was not properly disposed of.
But even if he interpreted the law as covering an act such as White's, Doyle said, he could not find that White's brief grasp of the jar would qualify as "keeping" the body for the purpose of displaying it. And that, he noted, would assume that the fetus was in fact a human body.
It was a question that hung over the case until it was raised yesterday, first by the defense attorney and then by the judge. In the end, however, Doyle decided he did not need to address the broader legal issue.
White, who lectures at schools and colleges, keeps a collection of human fetuses as part of his teaching work for an organization called Survivors of the Abortion Holocaust. He said he uses the fetuses to demonstrate human development.
It was one of those fetuses that caught the attention of police officers posted at Planned Parenthood last April 24. It was in a glass jar and in the hands of another activist, who was showing it to a person recording the event with a video camera.
As police officers approached, the activist passed the jar to White, who testified that he took the container because it was not the appropriate time or place for such a display. White said that he wanted to avoid any problems that might arise. The second activist was not arrested, and police said they lost him in the crowd.
By the time police officers reached the group, the jar was in White's grasp, and it was quickly seized by a police supervisor, according to testimony and the video recording. The video later wound up on the Internet.
The video, examined dozens of times on the judge's laptop computer, was not the smoking gun that it might have seemed. It revealed how brief the episode was.
In their closing arguments, Assistant D.C. Attorney General Jennifer Massengale and defense attorney Brian Chavez-Ochoa delved into the definitions of such words as "possession." The case came down, in many ways, to semantics, and interpreting a law written more than 100 years ago.
"I think the statute was a tough statute to prove," Massengale said afterward.
After the verdict, White wondered why he was arrested and speculated that it had everything to do with his antiabortion stance.
"Why," he said, "did the District of Columbia take this case to court? What was the harm to the District of Columbia? What was the threat to the District of Columbia?"