Little Sympathy for Pro-Life Activist As Trial Starts for His Alleged Killer

By Ed White | February 23, 2010 | 8:28 AM EST
Owosso, Mich. (AP) - In life, anti-abortion activist James Pouillon spent years trying to influence people in his small Michigan city with large signs of dead fetuses. In death, that combative style could make it difficult to find a jury for the trial of the man charged with killing him.
Jury selection was scheduled to start Tuesday in the first-degree murder trial of trucker Harlan Drake, who is accused of gunning down Pouillon outside Owosso High School on Sept. 11, then later shooting business owner Mike Fuoss.
But prosecutors have warned a judge that it will be "almost impossible" to seat jurors who haven't seen Pouillon's demonstrations or formed an opinion about him. He was everywhere -- the farmers market, City Hall, the county courthouse, football games -- with verbal taunts that were as shocking as his signs.
In high-profile trials, it's typically the accused seeking a new venue because of too much publicity or other issues. Not in this case.
"What's the assumption here?" said Drake's defense lawyer, Robert Ashley. "That people feel someone who had an obnoxious way of exercising his First Amendment right should die for it? That's extreme. ... I think we can get an impartial jury."
Judge Gerald Lostracco is keeping the trial in Shiawassee County, population 71,000, unless the prosecutors turn out to be right and a fair-minded jury can't be chosen this week.
"We'll give it a sincere effort," assistant prosecutor Sara Edwards said.
Pouillon, 63, was holding a sign depicting a dead fetus when he was fatally shot as students were entering the high school across the street. Fuoss was shot minutes later at his gravel company, just outside Owosso, which is 70 miles northwest of Detroit.
Police say Drake, 33, confessed to the killings. Authorities have not disclosed a motive, although they have referred to a possible grudge between him and the victims.
His family has denied any rift and said Drake suffers from depression and was having trouble with his medicine. He attempted suicide in jail.
"We'll ask for a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity," Ashley said.
Pouillon's death led to tributes from national anti-abortion groups. President Barack Obama called the shooting "deplorable." Hundreds of people, most from outside the Owosso area, attended a memorial service at the football field.
A perception that Pouillon was being turned into a martyr irritated many in Owosso. No one publicly defended the drive-by shooting, but letters in the local newspaper described Pouillon as belligerent and a "nut case" who brought children to tears with his signs.
"We had to admire his persistence but did not admire his modus operandi," The Argus-Press said in an editorial five days after the killings. "His sign, often accompanied by his shouting at passers-by, gave his cause, indeed his town of Owosso as well, a bad name."
Judy Jackson, 64, of Owosso, said she wouldn't be comfortable on a jury.
"I don't agree with someone taking someone's life," Jackson said. "But I don't miss the man on the corner or his foul mouth. He would chase you, call you names. He was evil. His pictures were so gross."
A barber, Jim Corrin, 63, once asked Pouillon, a regular customer, why he didn't display two pictures of happy children on his sign instead of just one accompanied by an aborted fetus.
"He said, `I want to show people the truth,'" Corrin recalled. "I had no problem with his message. He was just overboard with it. He knew how to push buttons on people, but Jim didn't deserve to be executed on the sidewalk."
Prosecutors have warned a judge that it will be "almost impossible" to seat jurors who haven't formed an opinion about the outspoken, pro-life victim.