Mark Houck and his wife, Ryan-Marie Houck, prior to entering the federal court house in Philadelphia on Jan. 25, 2023. / Credit: Thomas More Society/Vimeo
Philadelphia, Pa., Jan 25, 2023 / 16:00 pm (CNA).
The prosecution and defense gave fiery opening statements this morning in the federal government’s case against pro-life advocate and Catholic father of seven Mark Houck as his family, seated behind him, reacted in what was an emotional first day of the trial.
The trial, held in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, comes about four months after Houck was arrested at his home in front of his terrified wife and children by federal agents last September, following a federal indictment alleging that he violated the Freedom of Access to Clinic Entrances (FACE) Act.
The FACE Act prohibits “violent, threatening, damaging, and obstructive conduct intended to injure, intimidate, or interfere with the right to seek, obtain, or provide reproductive health services.”
Prosecutor Ashley Martin of the U.S. attorney’s office for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania alleged in her opening statement that Houck was the aggressor and instigator in an incident involving an abortion clinic escort more than one year ago.
The allegations relate to an incident that occurred at a Planned Parenthood abortion clinic in Philadelphia on Oct. 13, 2021. The federal indictment alleges that Houck twice shoved a clinic patient escort during a verbal altercation while a then 72-year-old man, Bruce Love, was attempting to lead clients inside the clinic.
Martin referred to Houck as a “6-foot-tall, 200-pound, muscular” man who was shouting at Love and assaulted him, alleging that Houck took two hands, placed them on Love’s chest and shoved him to the ground in one incident.
She said that video evidence, which has no sound, corroborates her claim. She did not say what Houck was shouting about. The one-minute video of the incident, which was shown Wednesday in court, shows Houck pushing Love to the ground after Love approaches Houck.
Martin alleged that another altercation between the men occurred first, in which Houck was attempting to talk to two women and elbowed Love after the abortion clinic escort allegedly told the women that they didn’t have to talk to Houck.
That allegation could not be corroborated by video evidence because the footage was apparently not saved by Planned Parenthood, according to Faiz Malik, vice president of people and culture for Planned Parenthood Keystone, who was one of the prosecution’s witnesses who appeared in court. Malik oversees security at the clinic where the incident occurred.
Martin said to the jury that this case is “not about pro-choice, it’s not about pro-life, it’s not about activism, it’s not about politics.”
“Politics just doesn’t come into the equation here,” she added.
Following the prosecution’s argument, one of Houck’s daughters could be seen crying in the arms of her mother. The room was filled with supporters for Houck, several of whom could be seen praying the rosary.
The defense argued that the charges against Houck should never have made it to federal court.
Defense attorney Brian McMonagle of the law firm McMonagle, Perri, McHugh, Mischak & Davis, said in his opening statement that “we’re not in state court here.”
“This is not a state court prosecution for assault,” he said, adding that “they made a federal case out of a shove.”
In order to fit the criteria laid out in the FACE Act, McMonagle told the jury that the prosecution has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Houck used force, intentionally injured or attempted to injure Love, and that he did it because Love was providing reproductive health services.
“They’ve got to prove motive,” he said.
McMonagle said that Houck “pushed Love because he refused to stop degrading him in front of his son and refused to leave them alone.” He said that Houck intentionally positioned himself a distance away from the entrance to the clinic while sidewalk counseling with his then 12-year-old son, Mark Jr.
Referring to the first incident, McMonagle said that Love approached Houck from behind while Houck was speaking with a woman who left Planned Parenthood and blocked him “like he’s setting a pick in a basketball game.”
He said that Houck shouted at Love, asked him what he was doing, and then returned to the street corner to pray. McMonagle said that Love left Planned Parenthood a short while after and approached Houck and his son. According to McMonagle, Love harassed them, saying things to the boy such as “You’re dad’s a bad guy” and “Your dad doesn’t like women.”
He said Houck told Love several times to return to the clinic and stop harassing his son. He then said that Love began to speak to Houck’s son again after walking away briefly. There is a video of the altercation, but again, there is no sound. The video shows both Love approaching Houck’s location on the street corner and Houck pushing him to the ground.
McMonagle maintained that Houck’s push was to defend his son and that “Houck’s intentions were not to injure anybody.”
“His motive that day was pure and simple. His hope was that he might be able to touch one heart that day, so he could save a second heart,” he said of Houck’s sidewalk ministry work.
As part of Houck’s Catholic apostolate “The King’s Men,” he does sidewalk counseling for women who are considering abortion.
Two of the prosecution’s witnesses took the stand on Wednesday: Malik and Dayle Steinberg, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Southeastern Pennsylvania.
Much of the questioning of the witnesses focused on the responsibilities of Planned Parenthood clinic escorts and whether Love had violated any of the company’s clinic escort policies.
Steinberg said she didn’t have an opinion on whether Love broke any policies, however, Love was removed from being a volunteer at the clinic temporarily, according to Malik. He said he asked Love to refrain from volunteering at the clinic until all litigation with Houck had concluded.
Malik said that Planned Parenthood has a “nonengagement” policy that directs the volunteer escorts to steer clear of and refrain from speaking to or engaging with protestors who may be in the vicinity surrounding the clinic.
Malik also affirmed that he told Love that he needed to stop engaging with protesters. It’s unclear if that was before or after the incident.
The trial will resume at 9:30 a.m. Thursday morning.