Maybe you have been to court before. I have not. In nearly seven years of Catholic journalism, I’ve spent time at press conferences outside of courtrooms, but not in them.
The grim-looking cement block that is the Provincial Court of B.C. is not one I have spent any time in – until a few days ago, when I was assigned to cover the sentencing hearing for pro-lifer and serial offender Mary Wagner.
Wagner is a woman I have written much about, but met in person only once before her sentencing Sept 11. She sat on a chair: silent, still, hair pulled back in a low ponytail, expression calm.
It was not Wagner’s first time in court, not by a long shot. She has spent the better part of the last decade behind bars, a hardened criminal sentenced many times in courts across the country.
Her crime? Entering abortion clinics to hand out roses and ask women what financial or other help she could offer so they wouldn’t go through with the procedure.
Wagner didn’t shout slogans or wave signs. She didn’t touch anyone, block doors, tie herself to anything, or make a scene – unless you consider handing out free roses a public disturbance.
Yet, in Canada her actions were enough to have her arrested by police, jailed, and forced to face a judge. She did, after all, walk into a secure building without an appointment.
I may be a newbie in the courtroom, but even as I fumbled with when to sit, stand, or speak like someone at Mass for the first time, I recognized Wagner’s case is an extraordinary one. Judge Mark Jette said as much during the sentencing hearing Sept. 11.
The judge found Wagner guilty of mischief and trespassing at Everywoman’s Health Centre in Vancouver April 17. (The arresting police officer had been unfamiliar with B.C.’s “bubble zone” law and so she was charged with different offences than she typically is.)
She’d been locked up since that day, and so, having spent more time behind bars than the maximum sentence for her crime, was set free the same day she was sentenced.
“You are not the sort of person we usually deal with in the courts,” Jette said during the proceedings.
Wagner isn’t mired in fraud or drug trafficking or other crimes many accused people who enter the provincial court are mixed up in. She is a pro-life woman with convictions that run so deep she enters abortion clinics with the urgency of someone who has learned a human life is in danger and dashes in to see if she can save it.
Though the judge found her guilty under Canadian law, he recognized Wagner’s actions come from her heart. When the Crown attorney asked for 30 hours of community service and a three-year probation, the judge gave her two years of probation and said he saw no reason for her to do community service.
“I’m satisfied that you are somebody who gives back to the community on a daily basis,” he told Wagner. “It’s in your DNA.”
That was an extraordinary statement indeed, her lawyer Peter Boushy told me afterward. “You rarely hear a judge compliment an accused person.”
During the hearing, Boushy told the judge that Wagner has a loving family to lean on after her release. Her parents, Frank and Jane Wagner, live on Vancouver Island and have raised seven biological children, five adopted children, and four foster children.
Frank and Jane took turns witnessing Wagner’s appearances in the courtroom, along with about a dozen supporters, for three days.
Frank said he had hoped the judge would find her innocent.
Mary tries to “protect the babies from imminent death,” he told me. “It’s like accompanying Jesus to his crucifixion. She wants to be there with them until the time they are being killed.”
When Wagner had a chance to share closing remarks, she said something I’m sure few accused say. She was glad she was found guilty.
“This conviction is nothing I am ashamed of. On the contrary, I am pleased that the court has found there is enough evidence to conclude that I interfered with the business of destroying helpless unborn children, who remain unprotected and abandoned by the court.”
Civil disobedience, Canada’s abortion “bubble zone” laws, and the effectiveness of Wagner’s in-and-out-of-prison strategy can be debated for a long time.
But what was not up for debate in that courtroom was Wagner’s heartfelt convictions, her deep belief in the humanity of the unborn, and her care for the vulnerable. The judge himself insisted there was no need to give her community service and acknowledged she came from a good family.
Wagner supporter Carl Wolkenstein said it is true that community service is in Wagner’s DNA, as the judge said. “That’s the same DNA that she’s had since she was in her mother’s womb,” though it seems Canadian law has yet to recognize that.
-Agnieszka Ruck is the assistant editor of B.C. Catholic, which originally published this opinion piece.