News & Politics

Barrett: Morning Joe Finally Breaks His Silence About Defending Abortion-Doc Killer

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After nearly a week of silence — 13 hours of television — Joe Scarborough finally addressed the assassination of George Tiller on Morning Joe at 7 a.m. today. The Voice has blogged twice this week about Scarborough’s sustained and awkward silence, a stark contrast to every other show on MSNBC, which has covered the killing extensively and movingly.

Not only did the pro-life Scarborough launch his political career by defeating a pro-choice Republican to win a Florida congressional seat in 1994, the then 29-year-old insurance attorney debuted in local newspapers in 1993 as the pro bono attorney for the Pensacola man convicted of the first murder of an abortion doctor killer, Michael Griffin. What prompted the first Voice blog post was that Rachel Maddow had led her show with a photo of Griffin, whose three fatal shots to the back of Dr. David Gunn led a copycat assassin a couple of months later to shoot Dr. Tiller the first time, wounding Tiller in both arms. That mention by Maddow of Griffin inspired us to return to the cover story we did on Scarborough in 2008.

“We’ve got to learn to sit down and talk,” said Scarborough at the climax of this morning’s several minute segment including co-host Mika Brzezinski and Pat Buchanan…
“People who are pro-life like myself can’t call people who are
pro-choice murderers, and people who are pro-choice can’t call people
who are pro-life — can’t claim they don’t give a damn about women and
want women to die in back alley abortions. That is the sort of angry,
heated rhetoric over the past quarter century that’s gotten us to where
we are today.”

For most viewers, however, the conversation prior to this clear and
forceful statement must have been very hard to follow. Brzezinski was
in such a rush to defend Scarborough that she offered a rationale for
his representation of Griffin before anyone told the audience that
Scarborough was a lawyer in the case. (“People like to read into when
you are trying to make the legal process move along, but I don’t think
there’s anything to that,” said Brzezinski).
Odder still,
Scarborough, fairly deep into this obscure conversation, said he didn’t
want to give Griffin’s name, even though he’d already identified his
client as “the first person that shot an abortion doctor” and noted
that the client was “from Pensacola,” Scarborough’s hometown. 

“The family wanted me then, and I’m sure now would appreciate me not
talking about it that much, so I won’t give his name,” said
Scarborough, who attributed his voluntary retention to connections
between Griffin’s family and his. When the Voice interviewed
Scarborough about this case last year, he exhibited no similar
reluctance to talk about Griffin by name, said his then father-in-law
had asked him to get involved in the case, and said he hadn’t talked to
Griffin’s father, Tom Griffin, a two-time donor to his congressional
campaign, since 1993. He may have raised this cloak of confidentiality
now — despite all but naming Griffin — as a way of suggesting a
rationale for his weeklong end-run around the Tiller killing.

Scarborough portrayed his stint representing Griffin as simply a search
for a real criminal lawyer to defend him, without noting that the judge
had already appointed a criminal attorney before Scarborough entered
the case or that he had stated, according to court transcripts, that he
was prepared to take the case to trial. There’s no doubt that
Scarborough did — as he described on air — talk to other possible
trial lawyers about taking the case (though Griffin contended in a
handwritten letter to the Voice from prison that Scarborough
wanted to remain as co-counsel at trial). Scarborough indicated this
morning that he picked the lawyer, Robert Kerrigan, an experienced
criminal defense attorney who Scarborough said “tried it very
aggressively” and “fought for this young man.”

But Kerrigan told the Voice that he was a member of the same
church as the Griffins and that Tom Griffin asked him to get involved,
not Scarborough, suggesting that Scarborough’s withdrawal from the case
was the family’s decision, not Scarborough’s. “I remember sitting in
Tom’s house and talking to him about it. I don’t remember ever talking
to Joe about this case,” says Kerrigan. “Joe was an obscure little guy,
not a rising star. Nobody knew anything about him. I can’t figure out
why he was screening any lawyers at all. Why was he running
interference? Why would he have been involved in a process like that at
all?”

Of course, a year and a half later, Scarborough wasn’t so obscure. He
was elected to Congress, fueled by national anti-abortion groups who
bankrolled his campaign. He then went on to vote against two 1995 bills
protecting abortion clinics from violence, though by then, the only two
abortion doctors killed in the country had both been shot in his
district on their way to clinics. Pensacola clinics were also routinely
bombed and it became, as Scarborough briefly suggested on air, the
seedbed of this violence. Strangely, the Morning Joe discussion
never got into how Scarborough’s three-month involvement with the case
might have been connected to the anti-abortion allies his campaign
attracted so soon thereafter, or why he opposed these bills. He
certainly never suggested that he had any regrets about his actions on
Griffin’s behalf — family favor or not.

Before Scarborough spoke out, the Voice contacted some of the
leading pro-choice organizations for comment on his silence. Mary Alice
Carr, the NARAL vice president who just refused to appear on Bill
O’Reilly’s show, told us yesterday that she was “a little surprised” to
hear the show had yet to deal with Tiller’s death, adding: “I agree
that his voice would be an important addition to the conversation. He
would have a unique perspective.” Keirra Johnson, the executive
director of ChoiceUSA, called it “disheartening” that Morning Joe
had yet to spend a minute on the murder. “I hope that with the memorial
service this Saturday, Scarborough will take the opportunity to
basically come out and say this type of behavior is unacceptable and
anti-American.”

He has.