MURRIETA – A Superior Court judge today rejected a Murrieta-based civil liberties attorney’s arguments, giving state prosecutors leeway in refiling felony charges against a woman accused of illegally taping conversations with Planned Parenthood and National Abortion Foundation representatives who were targeted for allegedly arranging to sell fetal tissue.
Sandra Susan Merritt and David Daleiden of the Center for Medical Progress in Irvine were charged in March with 14 counts of criminal invasion of privacy and one count of conspiracy.
The charges stemmed from a months-long undercover operation in which doctors and others affiliated with Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Foundation were secretly taped, appearing to mention the ease with which they could supply the organs of aborted fetuses for research.
On June 21, San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Christopher Hite dismissed the 14 criminal eavesdropping allegations, citing defects in the findings presented by the California Department of Justice. Hite gave the attorney general’s office the legally mandated 10-day window, established under the Evidence Code, to file an amended complaint reinstating the charges based on a firmer foundation.
State prosecutors filed a revised complaint against Daleiden within the deadline but did not include Merritt’s case, which is listed under a separate court docket number, prompting defense attorney Nic Cocis to file motions for a permanent dismissal of the 14 counts against her.
Prosecutors from Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s office informed Hite that they had committed a “clerical error,” convincing him they had intended to refile against Merritt, too.
Hite gave the prosecutorial team until the end of business yesterday to file the amended complaint. It was filed on time, incorporating all of the original allegations, according to a spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office.
“California law granted the attorney general 10 days to attempt to correct the defects and refile the charges, but the attorney general failed to file any amended complaint in Merritt’s case within the required deadline,” Cocis said. “If California’s top attorney, with the full resources of the state, could not manage to bring his political charges within the required deadline, no court has the power to fix that ‘error.’ Dismissal is the only remedy.”
The AG’s office declined to comment on the matter.
The next hearing for Merritt and Daleiden is scheduled for Oct. 2. Both are free on bond.
The CMP videos were widely distributed in 2015, gaining attention and mention during GOP presidential debates that year.
Merritt and Daleiden took on assumed identities, posing as managers of a fetal tissue research firm, BioMax Procurement Services, while attending Planned Parenthood and NAF conferences in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as during luncheons with abortion providers and other clinicians in Century City, El Dorado Hills, Pasadena and neighboring locations, according to court documents.
The defendants also targeted representatives from DV Biologics and StemExpress.
The latter was directly implicated in the alleged harvesting of fetal intestinal tissue, according to the CMP series, dubbed “The Human Capital Project,” the stated aim of which was to gather documentation that might lead to criminal charges.
In one video, the senior director of Planned Parenthood’s medical services branch, Dr. Deborah Nucatola, was taped allegedly telling how it’s possible to preserve and “evacuate an intact” skull for fetal tissue research.
Dollar figures were discussed during most of the videos. Trading in human body parts is a state and federal crime.
According to the attorney general’s office, Merritt and Daleiden used fictitious names and drivers’ licenses to gain access to their targets between October 2013 and July 2015. In all instances, investigators allege, the defendants secretly taped people in violation of California’s two-party consent law.
Planned Parenthood officials ridiculed the recordings as heavily edited and intended to paint a one-sided view of the topics being addressed.
Merritt and Daleiden were charged with similar offenses in Texas, but those counts were dismissed in 2016. They’re also being sued in federal court by Planned Parenthood for allegedly operating a “complex criminal enterprise” intended to “smear” the lawful practice of fetal tissue donation.
The plaintiffs are seeking unspecified damages.