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Doctor Is Let Out Of Prison, For Time Being, 2/28/2002

By Editorial Staff
Published February 28, 2002

A Judge Is Considering Overturning Dr. James Pendergraft’s Conviction In A Shakedown Scheme

By Henry Pierson Curtis, Sentinel Staff Writer

Dr. James Pendergraft, who owns five Florida abortion clinics, won his release from prison Wednesday while a federal court considers overturning his conviction for a shakedown scheme.

Supporters in Orlando say he may be back in the operating room as early as next week.

“I think he will be back to work very quickly,” his publicist, Marti Mackenzie, said Wednesday afternoon.

The doctor, 44, has been in prison since July, serving a 3-year, 10-month sentence. He and colleague Michael Spielvogel, 54, were convicted of trying to extort money from Marion County officials by threatening to bankrupt the county with a lawsuit over a proposed clinic.

A three-judge panel of the 11th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ordered the release of both men after hearing arguments Tuesday in Jacksonville.

“This is very unusual,” said attorney Bruce Rogow, a professor at Nova South Eastern University Law Center and a member of Pendergraft’s legal team. “What this signifies is that the court believes we are going to win the case.”

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office, which prosecuted the case, declined comment.

There was no indication Wednesday how long the appeal will take. Both men were ordered released immediately at 4 p.m.

“I have not spoken with him yet, but I expect he will spend some time with his family,” said Orlando attorney Larry Colleton, another member of the doctor’s legal team. “I expect he will return to his normal activities.”

Lucinda Findley, a law professor at the University of Buffalo, who won the release, argued that Pendergraft had the right to file a lawsuit against Marion County. She was assisted by South Florida attorney Bruce Rogow, a specialist in appeals, Colleton said.

Findley also argued the sentence was unfairly long and that Pendergraft did not receive a fair trial. She said a prosecutor tainted the jury by voicing racist characterizations of Pendergraft, Colleton said. Pendergraft is black.

The doctor received statewide attention in 1996 when Orlando officials agreed to pay him $325,000 to settle a lawsuit. They had tried to block one of his clinics, which performs second-trimester abortions.

Besides two clinics in Orlando, Pendergraft’s clinics are in Ocala, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale.

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