Kirstin Cassell (front row, far right) with her supporters on Friday morning (photo by Carolyn de Berry)
On late Friday afternoon, after waiting almost eight hours, Kirstin Cassell exited the Guilford County Courthouse with tears in her eyes. Her emotions were mixed, a result of the long day and also what came before it.
Just a half hour earlier, Danny Bracken was convicted of simple assault in a case that has been going on for the last three months. On June 4, Bracken hit Cassell with his car while she was volunteering as a clinic escort at Greensboro’s only abortion clinic, A Woman’s Choice. Initially, Bracken, who had been protesting at the abortion clinic since spring 2021, was charged with assault with a deadly weapon, but on Friday, Judge Caroline Pemberton convicted Bracken of simple assault.
Despite the lesser charge, Cassell and the dozens of supporters who showed up to the courthouse early Friday morning and stayed with her throughout the day, saw the conviction as a win.
“It’s absolutely a win because we got the DA’s office to listen to the community and to add this charge and he was held accountable,” Cassell said after the hearing.
In addition to the initial assault with a deadly weapon charge, Cassell and other abortion supporters called the district attorney’s office in the weeks leading up to today’s case to urge the office to add the charge of obstruction of a health facility for Bracken.
As reported by Triad City Beat earlier this week, the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances Act, otherwise known as the FACE Act, was signed by President Bill Clinton in 1994 in response to an increase in violence towards providers and patients of abortion clinics. The statute creates federal jurisdiction and penalties for a person who “by force or threat of force or by physical obstruction, intentionally injures, intimidates or interferes with or attempts to injure, intimidate or interfere with any person because that person is or has been, or in order to intimidate such person or any other person or any class of persons from, obtaining or providing reproductive health services.” The act also penalizes people who intentionally damage or attempt to damage or destroy property of a reproductive-health facility. On the Justice Department’s web page explaining the act, “physical attacks on clinic employees and patient escorts” is noted specifically under “conduct found illegal under FACE.”
In 2010, North Carolina passed its own state statute that mirrors the national law. It similarly prohibits obstructing a person’s access to a healthcare facility and prohibits injuring or threatening to injure a person who is obtaining health care services, lawfully aiding another to obtain health care services or providing health care services.
At the beginning of the day, it appeared that the assistant district attorney in charge of the case, Betsy Lamb, wasn’t going to add the obstruction charge, stating that her supervisor, John Stone, had suggested against it because it would delay the case. But in the afternoon right before the lunch recess, Lamb approached Cassell to let her know that the office would add the charge if Cassell was okay with the case possibly being continued by Bracken’s counsel.
During the hearing, Lamb argued for the added obstruction charge against Bracken by pointing out Section B of the North Carolina law which states that “No person shall injure or threaten to injure a person who is or has been:
(1) Obtaining health care services;
(2) Lawfully aiding another to obtain health care services”
In the end, Judge Pemberton dismissed the additional charge after some confusion about the statute itself. During her testimony, Cassell stated that she had assisted abortion clients “that day,” alluding to the fact that she had assisted clients prior to Bracken arriving at the clinic. Lamb used this portion of Cassell’s testimony to argue that Cassell “had been lawfully aiding another to obtain healthcare services,” but Pemberton didn’t appear to be convinced and ultimately sided with Bracken and his lawyer, Jan Pritchett.
Following the dismissal of the obstruction charge, Pemberton considered the combined testimonies by Greensboro police Officer Jason Wright who responded to the incident, Cassell, clinic escort Michael Usey, Bracken himself and Bobby Singleton, the founder of Triad Coalition for Life, to charge Bracken with simple assault. Singleton told TCB that he and Tim Rogers were only at the hearing because they had been subpoenaed by Bracken’s lawyer. But the three were seen talking throughout the day and walked out with Bracken after the hearing.
In addition to the video footage that was shown to Judge Pemberton, it may have been Bracken’s personal testimony that convinced the judge to ultimately convict him of simple assault.
During his questioning, Bracken admitted that he “should have parked and waited,” rather than continuing to drive forward to where Cassell and others were standing. He argued that he did so because that’s where he “always parks,” but Pemberton told him he was at fault.
“You know you did something wrong,” she told him.
Bracken must now complete a series of mandatory anger-management courses and is prohibited from coming within 1,000 feet of the abortion clinic for a year. After six months, Bracken is scheduled to appear in court to ensure he is in compliance. After a year, the court will offer him a PJC, or a prayer for judgment continued. That means that Bracken is found guilty but no judgment is made by the court and no further charges will be added unless Bracken is found to have violated the terms of his sentencing.
Bracken declined to comment to TCB on Friday.
Outside of the courthouse, Cassell said that the fight isn’t over to protect abortion rights. Part of it is making sure that people can fight for the charge of obstruction of healthcare facilities statute effectively.
“As a community, we need to continue to push,” she said. “We got the DA’s office to push the charge, but we got a judge who wasn’t willing. So we need our judges to be more familiar with this statute and if they want to be elected, they need to show us that they’re familiar with this statute.”
On July 6, a few weeks after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Gov. Roy Cooper signed Executive Order 263 to protect abortion access in the state. Part of the executive order pointed directly at the state law that deals with obstruction of health care facilities.
Section 6 of the executive order “Protecting Access to and Egress from Reproductive Health Care Facilities,” states that the “North Carolina Department of Public Safety shall work with law enforcement agencies and reproductive health care services facilities to ensure the enforcement of N.C. Gen. Stat.§ 14-277.4, which protects access to and egress from health care facilities.”
“It’s very clear that the system has a lot to do in terms of supporting abortion access in Greensboro,” said Ten H., an abortion clinic escort who came to support Cassell on Friday.
As Cassell and her colleagues left the courthouse, they hugged and talked about their plans for the next day.
“See you in the morning,” Cassell said to the others who returned to their cars. She said she planned on being at the abortion clinic the next day to volunteer, like she does every Saturday.
“It’s what we do,” she said.
Learn more about this case in previous reporting here.
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