Juror contempt prompts mistrial in church abuse case

Brooke Covington, right, a member of the Word of Faith Fellowship church in Spindle, N.C., leaves a hearing at Rutherford County Courthouse accompanied by an attorney, Joshua Valentine, left, and her husband, Kent Covington. Photo by Kathy Kmonicek.

RUTHERFORDTON, N.C. (AP) — A judge held a juror in contempt and declared a mistrial Tuesday in the case of a North Carolina church minister charged in the beating a congregant who says he was attacked to expel his "homosexual demons."

The judge immediately sentenced the juror to 30 days in jail and a $500 fine.

Brooke Covington, 58, a longtime minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina, faced up to two years in prison if convicted on charges of kidnapping and assaulting former member Matthew Fenner in January 2013.

Covington was the first of five church members to face trial in the case. Each defendant will be tried separately. Covington's trial began May 30.

Fenner, 23, said he was leaving a 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."

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.

During closing arguments, prosecutor Garland Byers said Fenner was held against his will and attacked "in the name of religion."

"They were trying to scare him straight, and I hate using that terminology," Byers said.

Defense lawyer David 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's closing arguments included a nearly hour-long computer presentation with topics like "Matthew Fenner's Pinocchio Moment" that sought to poke holes in his testimony.

Teddy also said Fenner wanted to punish the church for condemning his homosexuality.

"That is a cause, not a crime," he said.

Fenner testified last week that 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.

The defense called no witnesses.

The last state witness to testify, Rachael Bryant, said Monday that she had seen several people blasted while she was in the church and they couldn't just walk away.

"I've seen people try to do that. It does not end well. They bring in ten people to hold you down," she said.

Based on exclusive interviews with 43 former members, documents and secretly made recordings, the AP 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.

Fenner said he joined the sect with his mother and brother in 2010. He fled after he said he was attacked.

One of the defendants, Sarah Anderson, left the church in 2015, saying her 1-year-old son was being abused.  She testified on Friday that she participated in the assault and that Covington was the ringleader.

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.

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 its current congregation in North Carolina, and another nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil and Ghana. It also has affiliations in other countries. Whaley was not charged in this case.

By Mitch Weiss and Holbrook Mohr. Copyright Associated Press.
The Gayly - 6/6/2017 @ 1:51 p.m. CST