Matthew Fenner was the first person to take the stand in the assault and kidnapping trial of Brooke Covington, a 58-year-old minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina.
Fenner, 23, said Covington was the leader in a 2013 beating involving numerous congregants. He said Covington pointed out his sexual orientation, saying, “God said there is something wrong in your life.”
Fenner said he had cancer as a child and had a biopsy one week before he was assaulted.
“I’m frail and in my mind, I’m thinking, ‘is my neck going to break, am I going to die?'” Fenner said.
Covington faced up to two years in prison if a judge had not held a juror in contempt and declared a mistrial.
Superior Court Judge Gary Gavenus immediately sentenced the juror, Perry Shade Jr., to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Gavenus said Shade brought in three documents Tuesday and handed them out to his fellow jurors.
One of the documents was North Carolina case law.
“This juror has impaired the integrity and fairness of the trial … therefore I am removing this juror and declaring a mistrial,” Gavenus said.
The audience gasped. Fenner dropped his head.
“I instructed the jurors over and over again not to do research,” said the judge, who then stared at Shade.
“You are in direct criminal contempt,” Gavenus said, ordering the bailiff to handcuff Shade, 71.
“Thirty days in jail and $500 fine. You are under arrest. Get him out of here,” Gavenus said.
During jury selection last week, Shade said Covington’s lawyer, David Teddy, once represented him in a case, but he didn’t elaborate. Prosecutors and Teddy allowed Shade to be on the jury.
Prosecutors and witnesses were prohibited by a judge’s order from discussing the case, but Fenner’s friends and family were quick to respond.
Fenner has said he was leaving a Sunday night prayer service Jan. 27, 2013, when nearly two dozen people surrounded him in the sanctuary.
He said they slapped, punched, choked and blasted him – a church practice that involves intense screaming – for two hours as they tried to expel his “homosexual demons.”
Covington’s lawyer, David Teddy, tried to poke holes in Fenner’s testimony, noting that Fenner praised the church in his high school graduation speech and visited a Word of Faith Fellowship church in Brazil.
“Before I got to Word of Faith, my life was filled with sin,” Teddy said, quoting from the transcript of one of those speeches.
Teddy also said Fenner never told anyone to stop hitting him. “When you’ve been emotionally abused, you cannot say stop,” Fenner said.
Complaining would have made the punishment worse, Fenner said.
During opening statements, Teddy said the congregation gave Fenner routine prayer that lasted no longer than 15 to 20 minutes. When the prayer was over, Fenner “hugged everybody and left the church,” Covington’s lawyer, David Teddy, said.
As part of an ongoing, two-year investigation into abuse of Word of Faith Fellowship congregants by church leaders, The Associated Press interviewed four former church members who say they witnessed Fenner being attacked.
Based on interviews with 43 former members, documents and secretly made recordings, the media reported in February that Word of Faith Fellowship congregants were regularly punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls in a violent form of deliverance meant to “purify” sinners by beating out devils.
The church has scores of strict rules to control congregants’ lives, including whether they can marry or have children.
Failure to comply often triggers a humiliating rebuke from the pulpit or, worse, physical punishment, according to numerous former members interviewed by the media. Members can’t watch television, go to the movies, read newspapers or eat in restaurants that play music or serve alcohol.
If church leaders believe a congregant has sexual or dirty thoughts, they can be accused of being “unclean” and be punished, the former members said.
Fenner said he joined the sect with his mother and brother in 2010. He fled after he said he was attacked.
The Grand Jury found true bills of indictment on the following people:
1) Justin Brock Covington (Second Degree Kidnapping/ Simple Assault)
2) Sarah Covington Anderson (Second Degree Kidnapping/ Simple Assault/ Assault by Strangulation)
3) Brooke McFadden Covington (Second Degree Kidnapping/ Simple Assault)
4) Robert Louis Walker Jr. (Second Degree Kidnapping/ Simple Assault)
5) Adam Christopher Bartley (Second Degree Kidnapping/ Simple Assault)
The defense had filed requests to move the trial out of Rutherford County, located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains midway between Charlotte and Asheville, due to years of negative publicity about the church’s practices.
As an alternative, the defense asked to have a jury brought in from another area.
Superior Court Judge Gary Gavenus denied those requests.
The AP’s investigation revealed that congregants were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse and that two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker were among those who coached congregants and their children on what to say to investigators.
After the AP report, the prosecutors, including one who is a son-in-law of a church founder, left their jobs, and the social worker resigned.
The sect was founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam, a former used car salesman.
Under Jane Whaley’s leadership, Word of Faith Fellowship grew from a handful of followers to a 750-member congregation in North Carolina, and another nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil and Ghana. It also has affiliations in other countries. Whaley is not charged in this case.
“He’s been waiting for justice for four years and now we’re going to have to start all over. It’s unfair to him,” said former church member John Cooper.
Linda Reider, Fenner’s aunt, said her nephew is hurt and disappointed.
“He’s disgusted at the jury. It took a lot of courage for him to come forward in the first place. There were so many roadblocks put in place. Now this. But his family and friends will stick behind him. We won’t give up.”
North Carolina authorities are investigated and sentenced 71-year-old Perry Shade Jr, the juror who brought unauthorized documents to jury deliberations, causing a mistrial in the case of a minister charged with beating a gay congregant.
Rutherford County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Ricky McKinney said a gag order prevents him from saying more.
Jurors were deliberating Tuesday in the trial of Brooke Covington, a minster at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina, when Shade was charged with contempt and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Shade’s son says his father “made a mistake” and wasn’t trying to derail the trial by bringing in documents, including outdated case law.
As part of an ongoing, two-year investigation into abuse of Word of Faith Fellowship congregants by church leaders, The Associated Press interviewed four former church members who said they witnessed Fenner’s assault.
Earlier Tuesday, a man was charged with harassing the jurors.
Chad Metcalf, 35, was brought before Gavenus in handcuffs after he allegedly told the jury in a hallway to reach a verdict.
Gavenus said Metcalf could face 39 months in prison, and set bail at $100,000.
Rhonda Johnson, who said she is Metcalf’s mother, told the AP in a message that her son was probably joking. She also said he isn’t affiliated in any way with Word of Faith Fellowship.
Johnson said it was “absolutely crazy for them to do this” to her son because he probably didn’t know not to talk to jurors and meant no harm.
Several former church members who were in the courtroom told the AP they didn’t know or recognize Metcalf.
Court records show a man by that name had a court date Tuesday on a charge of driving with a revoked license. It wasn’t clear if Metcalf has an attorney, and calls to a telephone number listed for him weren’t answered.
The big picture here was outlined during closing arguments, as prosecutor Garland Byers said Fenner was held against his will and attacked.
“In the name of religion, you don’t assault people. You don’t get to hurt people. You don’t get to confine people,” he said.
“They were trying to scare him straight, and I hate using that terminology,” Byers added.
Teddy countered that Fenner had been subjected to blasting before and had also participated in the form of prayer when it was used on others.
“He requested the prayer. He consented to the prayer. And I submit to you, he knew what was coming,” Teddy told the jurors.
Teddy said trying to use a misguided strategy that this case is merely Fenner punishing the church for condemning his homosexuality.
“That is a cause, not a crime,” he said.
Spy would like to point out that beating the devil out of a homosexuals has been a favorite pastime of the so called christian hate groups since they opened their doors to preach and promote their brand of after life insurance.
Based on exclusive interviews with 43 former members, documents and secretly made recordings, the AP reported that the Word of Faith Fellowship congregants were regularly punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls in a violent form of deliverance meant to “purify” sinners by beating out devils.
Fenner said he joined the sect with his mother and brother in 2010. He said he fled after being attacked.
The AP’s investigation also revealed that congregants were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse and that two assistant district attorneys and a veteran social worker were among those who coached congregants and their children on what to say to investigators. After the AP report, the prosecutors, including one who is a son-in-law of a church founder, left their jobs, and the social worker resigned.
A retrial is scheduled for July.
(No homosexual demons could be reached for comment)