Friday, April 27, 2018
News Roundup

Judge considers bail request in Tampa abortion pill case

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect a motion filed July 2 by the U.S. Attorney's Office saying that it earlier had incorectly identified a woman recorded talking with John Welden in a jailhouse conversation.

TAMPA — Buju Banton, Bernie Madoff and Sami Al-Arian have nothing to do with John Andrew Welden, the man accused of slipping his girlfriend an abortion drug.

But all three names were invoked Thursday in a quest to free Welden on bail.

Welden, 28, has been in the Pinellas County jail for a month, ever since federal prosecutors charged him with causing the death of Remee Jo Lee's unborn child by camouflaging one pill bottle as another.

Investigators now eavesdrop on his jailhouse phone calls.

A courtroom of people Thursday heard Welden talk on those recordings about wanting to ruin Lee. He called her a nasty name. They heard his stepmother propose hiding his car ownership so Lee's civil suit couldn't touch his 2007 Pontiac.

Should Magistrate Judge Anthony Porcelli let Welden out?

Will he run?

That was the question.

Even before Buju Banton came up, Porcelli saw 20 or so Welden supporters raise a hand and pledge to post $10,000 signature bonds guaranteeing his presence in court. He learned that Welden's father would post not one but five real estate parcels. GPS monitoring? A curfew? His defense attorney offered it all.

Porcelli left without making up his mind. He said he'd get back to everyone. He'll have plenty of reading material while he ponders the defense motion.

That's because, along with the audio recordings, prosecutor W. Stephen Muldrow gave the court a transcript of a phone call in which Welden admits to Lee that he gave her the abortion drug Cytotec.

There's also a transcript of his similar admissions to detectives and another of an interview detectives had with Welden's father, a Lutz fertility specialist, who seemed to know nothing of his son's alleged deeds.

From the beginning, Porcelli has accepted prosecutor Muldrow's position that the son is a flight risk because he could face life in prison if convicted of fetal homicide.

"Putting it bluntly," Porcelli reiterated to defense attorney Todd Foster, "your client would be a fool not to run if I release him."

Foster reminded the judge that, once, even in a high-profile terrorism case surrounding former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian, two defendants were granted pre-trial release.

The law favors releasing defendants in many cases unless no combination of conditions can assure their return to court.

The names of reggae star Banton and financier Bernie Madoff came up because both once agreed to hire personal security guards to guarantee court appearances. Porcelli, in 2010, permitted house arrest for Banton, while requiring that a security detail watch him at all hours. (The entertainer eventually went to prison on a drug charge.)

Welden's attorney offered to look into that.

The hearing Thursday wasn't simply about Welden's flight potential but about the strength of the government's evidence. In a sense, the two are linked: The stronger the case is, and the more serious the charges are, the more judges worry about flight.

In debating that, attorneys gave a taste of the legal questions that lie ahead if the rarely applied fetal homicide prosecution isn't cut short by a plea deal.

Attorney Foster told the judge that the embryo in question was only slightly larger than a grain of rice and "not a child in any technical sense."

Porcelli reminded him that the federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act, under which Welden is charged, considers a child in utero to be a member of the species homo sapiens at any stage of development in the womb.

Foster questioned whether an embryo was part of that species.

Then came the science. He and prosecutor Muldrow offered conflicting characterizations of the drug's likely affect on an embryo at the dosage Lee reportedly took: one 200-microgram Cytotec pill.

Foster, with the affidavit of an expert witness on his side, said the government won't be able to prove that Welden caused the miscarriage.

"The conduct of this defendant, while it may be many things, is not murder," Foster said.

The judge said the jury could still convict Welden of a lesser charge.

He did not say how long he will take to decide on bail.

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