Update: This story was updated at noon on Sept. 29 to include a statement from the Fuller & Semerad Law Firm on behalf of Green and her family. —Ed
CHEYENNE—Julie Burkhart has every reason to be angry with Lorna Green.
Last year, the 22-year-old Green set fire to a clinic that Burkhart planned to open in Casper because the facility was set to offer abortions. The blaze caused nearly $300,000 in damage and set back the clinic’s opening by about 10 months.
But when it came time Thursday to sentence Green, Burkhart didn’t ask for the maximum punishment. She and others who spoke didn’t condone Green’s actions. Yet they also made it clear they didn’t loathe her.
Burkhart mentioned her daughter — the same age as Green — saying her “heart breaks” for the defendant.
“I don’t hate her,” Burkhart said. “I’m trying to forgive.”
Most, including federal prosecutors, asked that Green serve the mandatory minimum — five years — for the crime she’d previously admitted to: arson at a building involved in interstate commerce.
And indeed, that was what she was sentenced to, followed by three years of supervised probation and an estimated hundreds of thousands of dollars in restitution.
The sentence came after significant emotional testimony from Burkhart — founder of Wellspring Health Access — the building’s owner, Green’s lawyer and even the judge.
Early in the morning of May 25, 2022, Green drove from Laramie to Casper with gas cans and aluminum pans purchased from Walmart, according to federal investigators.
What she was thinking during those two hours driving in her 2007 Toyota Corolla is unknown. But she later told investigators she’d learned from media reports that Wellspring Health Access would be offering abortions, which she didn’t like and gave her nightmares and anxiety.
At around 3 a.m., she broke the glass of a door at Wellspring Health Access and went in, court filings state. A neighbor heard the sound.
Green placed pans with gas around the interior of the building, spreading gas elsewhere, too. She wore a hoodie and medical face mask, obscuring her face from cameras.
When she lit the fire, it spread quickly, investigators said, recounting her story in a filing.
“She slipped on some of the gasoline on the floor and fell down,” they wrote. “Green stated she fled out the same door through which she entered the building, taking one of the two gas cans with her.”
The neighbor who had heard the glass break watched her leave and called police, who arrived at the scene at 3:49 a.m.
The clinic is within 10 feet of an apartment building, U.S. District Court Judge Alan Johnson said, noting that it was likely filled with sleeping residents at the time. Just up the road is a gas station.
In a way, Green was lucky. If the blaze had injured someone, the mandatory minimum sentence she faced would have been seven years, with a maximum of 40, Johnson said.
Cameras captured the crime, but it wasn’t until a year later, after an increase in award money and the release of more surveillance camera images of her hairline, that tips came in and authorities arrested Green.
Burkhart was the first to recount how the fire affected her. The clinic she founded now offers a range of health care services, including abortion, in midtown Casper.
She mentioned the physical damages — which the clinic had estimated at around $290,000 — but focused on the emotional trauma of the event, calling it a “terrible act of violence.”
“I’m not here to moralize about abortion,” she said. But she asked the judge to enact justice, “ensuring that something like this doesn’t happen again.”
She recalled seeing her phone light up early on the morning of the fire with a call from a contractor. The clinic was about three weeks from opening.
“I instantly knew something was wrong,” she said.
She had reason to suspect the worst. She’d been stalked before, she said, and a former colleague of hers, George Tiller, was murdered in his church in 2009.
Burkhart said it wasn’t just the money, but the climate of fear stoked by arson that was problematic, pointing to increasing threats to clinics offering abortion around the U.S.
“No amount of money can erase that fear,” she said.
Christine Lichtenfels followed Burkhart. She owns the building the clinic is housed in. She also mentioned the fear the fire stoked, the temporary loss of insurance on the building and the misunderstanding of what goes on in clinics like Wellspring Health Access.
“Giving birth is many times more dangerous than abortion,” she said.
However, she told the court she believes in “the rehabilitation function of the penal system,” and only requested Green serve the mandatory minimum sentence, while “learn[ing] some empathy for women seeking abortion.”
Ryan Semerad, Green’s lawyer, said criminal sentencing is meant to harmonize an act and a human being.
“Miss Green asks me to make only four points to you,” he said.
His client acted independently and took full responsibility, Semerad told the court. She did not intend to spread fear, she has no hate for the clinic and its employees, and her action represented a “strong reaction” to big emotions she didn’t have tools to deal with, he explained.
He described her as intelligent, caring and committed to improving herself.
“This is terrible, and we’re all losers here,” he said, placing some of the blame for the arson on those who used “reckless speech” around the clinic, inflaming hatred toward it.
The judge went much further, recounting parts of Green’s story that were otherwise in sealed documents. Johnson mentioned all the letters he saw from her family and community, all of which were positive.
But he also talked about challenges within her family. About 30 family members and supporters watched the proceedings as he spoke.
“It seems to me you’ve been lost in the expectation of others for some time,” he said.
He went on to paint a picture of her home life, which included expectations that she take a career where she may find a husband, serve him and have many children. He noted the “traditional gender roles” practiced there, saying her parents used “extreme control” and “manipulation,” all of which he said limited Green’s options in life.
The last time she was spanked was at age 18, he said, adding that she was never treated her age.
The Fuller & Semerad Law Firm issued a statement Friday on behalf of Green and her parents, Stephen and Wynette. It states her parents “have boundless love for Lorna. They are heartbroken by her incarceration but know she will persevere through this time and flourish in whatever she pursues upon her release.”
It goes on to say the two are “dedicated to their children’s happiness and success in life. Any suggestion or implication to the contrary is inaccurate.”
The family stated they have no other comments, but request privacy “for themselves as they navigate this trying time.”
As part of her three-year probation after prison, Johnson mandated mental health treatment, including medications prescribed as necessary. He also said Green was assaulted by a former boyfriend, a trauma for which she never underwent therapy.
Johnson didn’t mince words, though, saying that federal prison is “terrible,” and often provides poor health care, noting a recent NPR story to that effect.
Green, who wore an orange jail uniform, bright orange Crocs and glasses, addressed the court only briefly.
Green has requested to serve her time in either Bryan, Texas, or Alderson, West Virginia, both of which are minimum security prisons with more programming and services, Semerad said.
“She’s not a security risk,” he said.
No matter where she ends up serving her time, Judge Johnson reiterated that she should avoid being manipulated by the other incarcerated people and keep working towards her educational goals.
Even though she’s sentenced to five years in prison, there is an opportunity for her to only spend a bit more than four years behind bars with good behavior, Semerad said. Incarcerated people get 54 days of “good time” each year, he added, which can go towards early release if they follow the rules.
Even so, it’s a long road for Green, and she’ll likely have to pay around $270,000 in restitution, Semerad said.
“My general reaction to this whole situation is that Lorna Green is fundamentally a good person with a lot of potential,” he said afterward. “And she got swept up in inflamed emotions that were stoked by a lot of very powerful people who speak recklessly and don’t care about those consequences that are a direct result of what they say and the messages they put out there.”
“There has been a steady diet of violent rhetoric by people that are pro life and anti choice legislators, decision makers, presidents, presidential candidates, and they created an environment that was ripe for this kind of action, and they’re responsible, too.”