In 1993, Polk County Attorney John Sarcone Faced Allegations of Bias on Abortion Cases

Sarcone has insisted he has no ulterior motives in his recent prosecutions of a reporter and racial justice protesters. But early in his career, he handled cases involving a protester known for harassing an abortion doctor much differently.

News clippings from the October 2, 1993, and May, 11, 1994, editions of the Des Moines Register

In our recent criticism of Polk County Attorney John Sarcone’s prosecution of Des Moines Register reporter Andrea Sahouri over her arrest at a racial justice protest last May, the Informer questioned what compelled him to take the case so far even in the face of national and international outrage and with such scant evidence. We also questioned his handling of others he’s prosecuted in a similar fashion in connection with recent protests.

A subsequent search through the Register archives turned up a situation with some interesting similarities — and notable contrasts — involving Sarcone’s actions following a Windsor Heights doctor’s alleged assault on an anti-abortion protester in September 1993, less than three years after the county attorney assumed the position he’s now held for three decades.

The doctor, Herbert Remer, was arrested after a clash outside his clinic with David Shedlock, a protester with the anti-abortion group Operation Rescue, who often picketed there, as well as at Remer’s home and the homes of nurses he employed. According to an article in the Register, witnesses said the doctor “rushed” Shedlock, landing “massive blows to the head and face.” Reached by phone, Remer countered by telling reporter Guy Tridgell that Shedlock initiated the confrontation by striking him with a protest sign, at which point Remer hit Shedlock “in the face two or three times,” Tridgell wrote. (An article published five days later said Remer “admitted punching Shedlock three or four times.”) Explained Remer, “He started it, and I wasn’t going to give him the chance to finish it.”

Until facing trial the following April, Remer would maintain that he was acting in self-defense, and many in the community came to his defense. In mid-September, a week and a half after Remer’s arrest, the Register published five letters to the editor on the matter. Although one said that both men had “sunk to new lows by engaging in hand-to-hand combat,” the letters were generally sympathetic toward Remer and all of them accused Shedlock of ongoing stalking or harassment, targeting not only the doctor but his grade-school son. “I do not condone violence,” another letter read, “but how much harassment and verbal abuse can any one person take before lashing back?”

On October 1, a crowd of about 350 demonstrators gathered outside the Polk County Courthouse in support of Remer. Some carried signs calling on Sarcone, who wouldn’t comment on the pending case, to drop the charges and accusing him of siding with Operation Rescue. “By Sarcone doing this, pressing charges against a doctor who has been harassed, he’s encouraging further terrorism, and that is what is most angering about this,” a protest organizer named Melanie Williams told Register reporter Joy Riggs.

Operation Rescue’s tactics would later become even more notorious. The organization was headquartered in California until 1999, when a judge ordered it to pay $880,000 for its ongoing harassment and intimidation of Planned Parenthood staffers and doctors. In the wake of this judgement, Operation Rescue relocated to Kansas to protest the abortion practice of George Tiller, who was assassinated by anti-government extremist Scott Roeder in 2009. Roeder would sometimes call the organization’s senior policy adviser, a woman named Cheryl Sullenger who’d served two years in prison for plotting to bomb a California abortion clinic in 1988, for information on Tiller. (The group condemned Tiller’s murder, and Sullenger had renounced violent tactics after serving her sentence.)

A jury acquitted Remer of assault in April 1994 after deliberating for less than an hour. “Remer said he believes Polk County Attorney John Sarcone’s opposition to abortion influenced the decision to prosecute the case,” Riggs reported for the Register. “That claim was hotly denied by Sarcone, who said he has never made any decisions based on his personal beliefs while serving as county attorney.”

But skepticism from Sarcone’s critics would only grow. In October 1994, Register religion writer William Simbro reported that the county attorney — a practicing Roman Catholic — “was a sign-carrying participant” at a recent anti-abortion protest, at which he also joined hundreds of others to form a “Life Chain” in the shape of a cross near the intersection of Merle Hay Road and Douglas Avenue in Des Moines.

Sarcone disputed accusations that he had undermined the credibility of his office by participating in the protest, creating the perception of bias on cases involving the abortion issue. “I have enforced the law equally and fairly and I always will,” he told Simbro. “Look at how many times we have prosecuted protesters [for violating the law]. Look at how many we have prosecuted for civil disobedience.”

The Register‘s editorial board was not convinced. In an editorial published days later titled, “He doth protest too much,” the board said Sarcone’s actions called into question whether he was committed to upholding existing laws supporting abortion rights. The problem was not his religious beliefs, the editorial argued, but “that a county attorney should be and seem to be a prosecutor who enforces the law equally for all citizens.” It added: “You have to wonder, too, about his apparent disdain for public perception. Sarcone already has come under criticism for not moving strongly enough against abortion protesters who break the law. Why thumb his nose at those concerns?”

In our article on Sarcone’s prosecution of Sahouri’s protest charges (of which she was also acquitted after a brief jury deliberation), the Informer cited a recent Associated Press article noting that the county attorney “won election by defeating a Democratic incumbent in a 1990 primary in which he criticized his opponent for delegating too much power to a female deputy.”

This was in reference to an attorney named Maggi Moss, who worked for former Polk County Attorney Jim Smith, the man Sarcone defeated in the 1990 Democratic primary before going on to serve for 30 years without any election opponents. Supporters of Sarcone’s rejected implications that his criticism of Moss was sexist, pointing to a recent investigation conducted by the state attorney general’s office that concluded she and Smith handled some cases in a way that gave the appearance of favoritism.

Sarcone fired Moss shortly after he defeated Smith and took office. She went on to become a successful defense lawyer, representing clients including Remer, the abortion doctor Sarcone prosecuted for his alleged assault on Shedlock, the Operation Rescue demonstrator.

After Remer’s acquittal, Moss criticized Sarcone for prosecuting him in the first place. “I think [Shedlock] is a danger to the community,” she told the Register. “I think he is irrational. I think they prosecuted the wrong person.” In a Register article the following month, Moss accused Sarcone of having given Shedlock special treatment compared to clients she represented, including poor and Black defendants. As evidence, she pointed to Sarcone’s effort to get Shedlock released from jail for allegedly violating a no-contact order stemming from a February 1993 trespassing arrest at a Planned Parenthood clinic. Sarcone said he did this after learning that the no-contact order did not apply to the home of the Planned Parenthood employee outside where he’d been subsequently arrested. “It’s obvious that it’s a political thing,” Sarcone said of Moss’s criticism. “I don’t think she can handle it that I fired her. This is just high-school stuff.”

Speaking to the AP about Sarcone’s prosecution of Sahouri, Moss said his decision flew in the face of “common sense, the Constitution, and individual rights.” She added: “It leaves a bad taste. It was needless. It didn’t serve any public purpose. It was sad. Whatever legacy was there for John, I think this will forever taint it.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.