Over the last week, MSNBC has led the cable-news charge in covering the George Tiller murder — and the questions it’s raised about how implicated the wider anti-abortion movement is in the violence. Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann, and Chris Matthews have all covered the story — Maddow with particular distinction. But until today, one MSNBC show has been conspicuous for its reluctance to touch this major story. That would be Morning Joe, hosted by Joe Scarborough.
This morning, Scarborough publicly addressed the story, for what appears to be the first time. But what he talked about was his own past ties to an anti-abortion killer. And his comments — which seemed designed largely to minimize those ties — appear to conflict with other reported facts about the incident.
In 1993, David Gunn was killed in Pensacola, Florida, and Michael Griffin, an anti-abortion zealot, was accused of the crime. (Griffin was later convicted and jailed.) And Scarborough — who the following year would run for Congress as a Republican abortion foe — made several court appearances, pro bono, on Griffin’s behalf.
Speaking this morning on Morning Joe, Scarborough didn’t mention having represented Griffin. Rather, he said he was asked by Griffin’s family, who knew his own family, to find a lawyer for Griffin. (“The family hired me and they wanted me to find him a lawyer, to make sure he didn’t use the Bible as his self-defense in court,” he said) He implied that a number of people expressed interest in taking on the case in order because of its political implications (“for all the wrong reasons”) and that he was wary of such people. Eventually, he said, he found a “progressive, pro-choice” lawyer who nonetheless understood that everyone has the right to counsel. Scarborough went on to talk about the need to return to civility in American politics.
But when the Village Voice dug into the episode for a cover story on Scarborough last year, it found evidence suggesting Scarborough had sought to play a large role in the case.
Despite Scarborough’s claim that he was merely trying to find a lawyer for Griffin, the paper reported:
Griffin already had a court-appointed attorney, and when that attorney made a motion to substitute Scarborough at a June hearing, Scarborough said: “I understand that I come in this case if another attorney is not brought on board, that I will be responsible for representing Mr. Griffin at trial.”
In fact, Scarborough began representing Griffin shortly after the March murder and didn’t find a trial lawyer, Bob Kerrigan, until late June, when he wrote a letter withdrawing from the case.
And Griffin himself told the the Voice, in a letter written from prison, that he signed papers, brought to him by Kerrigan and Scarborough, that would have kept Scarborough on as co-counsel, until a judge rejected the plan. The Voice continued:
According to Griffin, Joe told him “several times” that he would represent him at trial and that he “had three friends still in law school who would help him,” adding: “I have an exact memory on this point.”
And there’s another way in which Scarborough’s explanation of his involvement appears shaky. He said this morning that Griffin’s family was friendly with his family. (Similarly, he told the Voice that he did it as a “favor for a friend,” saying that his then father-in-law was a friend of Griffin’s father. And he told the New York Times during the 1994 campaign that Griffin was a family friend.)
But, despite the paper’s strenuous efforts, no one would confirm that to the Voice. And Scarborough admitted to the paper he hadn’t seen Griffin’s father since then. In addition, another lawyer interviewed for the job by Scarborough said that, as he remembered it, “some people in Griffin’s church … knew Joe, and that’s how they got in touch.” As the Voice points out, that church “was deeply involved in the abortion-protest movement.”
Of course, Scarborough would go on to win the House seat the following year, with crucial backing from anti-abortion activists. His biggest single donor, according to the Voice, was the National Right to Life Committee, which gave him $15,210, and his second was the Eagle Forum, founded by anti-abortion hardliner Phyllis Schlafly.
But it makes us wonder: Did Scarborough, planning a run for Congress from a deeply socially conservative Florida panhandle district, sought to get involved in the Griffin case as a way to associate himself with, and build support among, the anti-abortion movement? In other words, was Scarborough’s political career launched in part by exploiting the dangerous strain of right-wing extremism that views the defense of an accused killer of an abortion provider as a cause celebre?
At the very least, it’s worth asking…