OLATHE, Kan. — A Kansas trial court judge postponed a criminal case against a Planned Parenthood clinic Monday, only days after the disclosure that the state health department had destroyed during routine document shredding copies of abortion reports needed as evidence.
Prosecutors received a two-week delay for a preliminary hearing scheduled to start Monday so they could determine whether they have enough evidence to go to trial. Abortion opponents have described the case in Johnson County District Court, filed in October 2007 but long delayed by legal disputes, as the first in the nation in which a prosecutor has charged a Planned Parenthood clinic with a crime.
Planned Parenthood officials opposed any delays, but District Judge Stephen Tatum agreed to give prosecutors time to see if they could put together a case with other evidence. Tatum said the next hearing, Nov. 9, will be to check on progress by Johnson County District Attorney Steve Howe's office.
"It's a game changer," Howe told Tatum in court. "Is it a hurdle? Yes. Does the state know what it's true impact is? No."
The Planned Parenthood clinic in the Kansas City suburb of Overland Park faces 107 charges, including 23 felony counts alleging that it falsified documents. The records in question are the clinic's copies of reports about individual abortions performed in 2003, which it was required by law to file with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.
Howe's office subpoenaed the health department's copies of the same records, so they could be compared in court with copies produced by the clinic. But, in a filing last week, Howe's chief deputy, Chris McMullin, disclosed that the health department said its copies had been shredded in 2005.
Planned Parenthood said the shredding occurred as part of the state agency's routine destruction of old paper documents.
But abortion opponents were stunned — and immediately suspicious — because the records were destroyed during the administration of Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, an abortion rights Democrat who left office in 2009 to become Health and Human Services secretary. Also, the clinic was under investigation by the Kansas attorney general's office when the documents were destroyed.
Planned Parenthood attorney Pedro Irigonegaray decried what he called "theories of conspiracy" advanced by abortion opponents.
The clinic has long denied any wrongdoing, though in a court filing Friday, it acknowledged "certain idiosyncrasies" in its copies of the reports, compared to the health department's copies. Planned Parenthood officials contend the case stems from the personal and political agenda of the prosecutor who filed it, Phill Kline, an anti-abortion Republican who served as Kansas attorney general from 2003 to 2007 and as Johnson County district attorney for two years after that. Howe, also a Republican, is Kline's successor.