Federal judge won’t let Prophetstown anti-abortion activist plead no contest

Two-day trial on Buyno’s attempted arson charge set for Oct. 24 in Urbana

Philip J. Buyno

URBANA – The federal judge in the case of an elderly Prophetstown anti-abortion activist charged with trying to burn down a future clinic where abortions will be performed will not allow him to plead no contest.

A defendant who pleads nolo contendere, or no contest, accepts a conviction without admitting guilt.

In a ruling issued Wednesday, U.S. Central District Court Judge Colin Stirling Bruce cited several reasons, including the lack of deterrence such a plea might engender not only in future criminals, but also in Philip J. Buyno himself.

Buyno, 73, was indicted June 6 and faces five to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 if convicted of attempted arson in the May 20 incident in Danville. There is no parole in the federal system.

Buyno admitted to investigators planning, attempting and failing to burn down the clinic, which was under construction at the time.

He filed his request to plead no contest on July 25, based on “his religious beliefs, as those beliefs are completely opposed to the expected purpose and use of the building.”

Prosecutors U.S. Attorney Gregory K. Harris and Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene L. Miller filed their objection on Aug. 9. In his ruling, Stirling agreed with the bulk of their arguments.

The decision to allow such a plea is up to the judge.

As the two laid out in their filing, there are several factors Bruce must consider when deciding whether to grant the rarely allowed plea, among them if such a plea would avoid an expensive and time-consuming trial; whether there are any mitigating factors in the commission of the crime; and if the plea will act as a sufficient deterrent to future crimes.

The trial is expected to last only two days, so the trial’s length is not an issue, Bruce said.

Pleading guilty would result in the same savings, the prosecutors noted in their objection.

The judge also did not find Buyno’s religious beliefs to be a mitigating factor.

“It is not apparent, nor does the defendant articulate, how pleading guilty versus nolo contendere to attempted arson will do violence to his religious beliefs,” Miller and Harris wrote in their objection.

Bruce took a slightly different tack.

“Regardless of the sincerity of his religious beliefs, Defendant continues to admit to the conduct charged in this case and does not deny those factual allegations,” Bruce said in his ruling.

“Therefore, there is apparently no religious belief that prevents him from entering a guilty plea, as compared to a plea of nolo contendere.”

Rather, Buyno “appears to be seeking to avoid the deterrent effects of a guilty plea,” Bruce said.

Because the public doesn’t attach the same stigma to a no contest plea as it it does to a guilty plea, “if the court were to accept a plea of nolo contendere in this case, it would signal to the public that Defendant’s crime was somehow less serious and less deserving of prosecution, thereby reducing the general deterrent effect of a conviction.”

Not only that, but even though Buyno immediately admitted his role to investigators, he also told them that if he were to be released, he would go back and “finish the job” the next day.

Not only did that statement negate Buyno’s acceptance of responsibility as a mitigating factor in the crime with which he is charged, but it also left Stirling “concerned about a deterrent effect on Defendant personally” should he be allowed to plead no contest.

“Defendant’s statements in the post-arrest interview, even if construed in part as acceptance of responsibility, cannot be considered mitigating circumstances when taken as a whole.”

“... if the court were to accept a plea of nolo contendere in this case, it would signal to the public that Defendant’s crime was somehow less serious and less deserving of prosecution, thereby reducing the general deterrent effect of a conviction.”

—   U.S. Central District Court Judge Colin Stirling Bruce

A status hearing will be held Oct. 2 and the jury trial will begin Oct. 24 in federal court in Urbana.

Buyno is in the custody of the U.S. Marshal’s Service while his case proceeds.

According to the probable cause affidavit:

Buyno told investigators he was a member of an anti-abortion “rescue group” that prevents abortion clinics from being established.

Around 4:30 a.m., he backed his car into the entrance of the Danville building, which was being remodeled into a reproductive health clinic.

The car was filled with containers of gasoline, wood and old tires Buyno planned to use to burn down the building.

His effort, which was caught on video surveillance cameras, failed when his car doors became jammed shut by the debris, and he couldn’t get out or reach a container of gasoline he had thrown out the window.

He was extricated and arrested.

Buyno told officers during his interview that “if I could sneak in with a gas can and a match, I’d go there again,” and that if he was released from jail, he’ll go back and finish the job, the affidavit said.

Because of Danville’s proximity to the Illinois-Indiana border, interstate commerce would be conducted at the clinic, hence the federal charge.

According to the Chicago Tribune, the building at 600 N. Logan Ave. belongs to McGhee Investment Group of Indianapolis, which also is owned by and has the same address as Clinic for Women, an abortion provider in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Also in May, Danville passed an ordinance to try to curb abortion access by banning the mailing and shipping of abortion pills.

The future clinic became a flashpoint in an ensuing debate over reproductive rights in the city of about 30,000.

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Kathleen Schultz

Kathleen A. Schultz

Kathleen Schultz is a Sterling native with 40 years of reporting and editing experience in Arizona, California, Montana and Illinois.