MISTRIAL: The wounds are still open…

Superior Court in Rutherford County

Tuesday morning began with a buzz of expectancy. Conversations were filled with exchanges of opinions and speculations about what the next few hours held. Could this be the day that Brooke Covington of the Word of Faith fellowship (WOFF) is convicted of simple assault and/or second-degree kidnapping? Or will the huge grin from last week return to her face as she is found not guilty on both counts?

Will Matthew Fenner return to his life in college with some satisfaction knowing the legal system in North Carolina has meted out justice in response to the five indictments surrounding the events of January 27, 2013 occurring inside the sanctuary of WOFF? Brooke Covington is the first trial as four others; Sarah Anderson, Justin Covington, Robert Lewis Walker, Jr. and Adam Bartley were also charged and await their fate. Who could have predicted the events that would unfold?

The jury assembled at 9:00AM and returned to deliberations shortly thereafter. When I entered to courtroom, the atmosphere was different from days previous. The witness sequestration was over and more people were in the room including media, supporters of Matthew and a crowd from WOFF. The number of media representatives was larger than days past. I took a seat and began speaking with an investigative reporter from another city.

Soon, I learned of an incident from earlier in the morning. A young man had made some negative comments to a jury member in the hallway, and after the bailiff consulted with the Judge, the man was arrested. The man was to be charged with harassment of a juror and Judge Gavenus had requested the young man appear before him for arraignment and bond. This was only a foretaste of things to come.

Just before 10:30AM, the jury sent out a note to the Judge saying “We need a break. We cannot reach a verdict.” The Judge required them to enter the courtroom and so he proceeded with his customary warnings and cautions for the jury members. He was again very deliberate and thorough with his delivery. They were given a 15 minute break.

After the jury left, others in the gallery made their way out to make calls or walk and stretch. Before I could leave, a young man was brought in and stood near the defense table his head down and hands cuffed behind him. Judge Gavenus addressed him asking his name, “Chad Metcalf.” The Judge explained that he was being charged with harassment of a juror which is a class H felony and carries a maximum sentence of 39 months. The young man was put under oath and asked if he had counsel. He said he could not afford a lawyer. After having the cuffs removed, he was allowed to complete some forms. He was then appointed a public defender and the hearing for probable cause was set for June 14th. Judge Gavenus told the young man he took the matter very seriously and set the bond at $100,000. Mr. Metcalf was escorted out and further processed.

As this scene played out before us, there was a solemn hush over those who remained the gallery. I don’t remember the chairs squeaking during this time. Everyone appeared frozen while just taking in the drama which was unfolding. As the young man left the room the folks began to stir some and begin making eye contact with each other. Soon, the noise of conversations resumed its previous pitch, but at any sign or sound of the jury room door opening- folks stopped talking and sat down expecting a verdict.

At 11:45AM, there was a knock heard from the jury room door and the bailiff opened the door and gave the note to the Judge. He leaves and returns, drawing Garland Byers and District Attorney Ted Bell into the room. I rushed to my seat thinking this could be THE VERDICT. It was not. The Judge read the note aloud after spending time peering at his computer screen. The note said (paraphrased) Did Brooke Covington give Matthew Fenner the opportunity to leave the church and live with his grandparents before or after prayer? The Judge inquired of Byers and defense attorney David Teddy to make sure his answer to the jury suited them. In brief, after bringing the jury out, he told them they had been given all the evidence and it was their duty to decide the questions from the facts they remember.

Judge Gavenus excused them for lunch telling them to be sure to wear the juror badges in public and not to discuss the case outside the jury room. He added they were not to visit any places mentioned in the trial and stay away from newspapers, media outlets, the Internet or social media. He warned them not to research questions about the case, but to rely on the evidence provided in the courtroom. After the jury left the room, the ones in the gallery were excused as well.

At 1:38PM, the jury was in their box and the Judge was seated, but clearly he was disturbed. He announced that it had come to his attention that a juror had handed out papers to the rest of the jury. He instructed them to return to the jury room and gather the papers and write down the name of the juror or jurors who had handed out the documents. The atmosphere in the room suddenly became very quiet in reflection of the possibility of what may be discovered. What could or should a juror handout unless it was already a court approved document of which the Judge would be aware of beforehand?

The jury reassembled in their room and soon a knock on the door attracted all eyes to see someone hand the bailiff the documents in question. The entire room was fixated on this new unfolding drama. The longer the Judge spent reviewing the documents the more visibly distraught he became. I leaned up to a reporter in front of me and whispered, “This is not good.” He nodded in reply.

After what seemed like hours, but was only a few minutes, the Judge handed copies of the documents in question to the Garland Byers and David Teddy. Each sat down to review this new material. After another brief period, the Judge asked them to comment. Byers began by saying he was deeply concerned and Teddy added similar statements. Byers was the first one to utter aloud the term “mistrial.” Teddy added the “Integrity of (any) verdict has been tainted.” To which Judge Gavenus declared there is no remedy but a mistrial.

By this time, the reality was settling on the others in the courtroom. The rogue actions of a juror would derail years of preparation and thousands of dollars spent to reach this point.

Garland Byers suggested the next trial could begin next week, to which there was no agreement. Teddy pointed out that the whole matter was “disturbing” and after all of the resources which had been allocated for this trial, he had to consider acquiring more resources. Yes, no attorney or his staff should work all the time for free. He pointed out the need for a transcript from this trial, which I know takes months unless there is a plan to expedite the process.

During the discussion of how to proceed, the Judge said it was juror number three. I searched my notes and found his name- incorrectly recorded as Terry Shade. It was Perry Lee Shade, Jr.

By 2:07PM the unwanted reality of a mistrial was sending shock waves through the gallery as the questions mounted higher than the ceiling. Who? How? Why? What now? When? How will a second version of these past few days differ?

The jury was called back in court room to review the infraction and announce the consequences of a mistrial. He went to ask the responsible juror to stand. At this moment, he declared to the juror he had violated his oath he was guilty of criminal contempt of court to which he would serve 30 days in jail and have a $500 fine. Judge Gavenus declared, “Get him out of here.” Mr. Shade made no reply; he left the box, walked toward the waiting deputies and was escorted out of the room. Never before had I witnessed such in open court. The looks of shock and amazement were on everyone, at least those in the gallery.

Next, the Judge commended the one juror who pointed out the infraction, lamenting his wish that all eleven others had not joined in to tell on Mr. Shade. He thanks them for their service and in response to Teddy’s request; he ordered them to not talk about the case to the press or any one at all. He included in this gag order court officials, attorneys and witnesses. Anyone violating this order just witnessed what happens to the offender. The cameras waiting outside were not as important to the Judge as preserving the integrity of the evidence for the future of this case.

And with the dismissal of the jury, the State versus Brooke Covington case is in need of future direction. Of course, Garland Byers was not allowed to immediately talk to the press about options going forward. A date has to be set and Mr. Teddy’s question about a transcript settled, at a minimum.

Will Mr. Shade under go any investigation by authorities since during the jury selection process he admitted to being a client of David Teddy’s about 15 years ago? Though he is serving 30 days, will any other charges be explored? The disappointment surrounding these turn of events outweigh any temporary satisfaction obtained during the trial from the disclosure of WOFF-practices.

Outside the court room the scene was frantic as news reporters desperately searched for someone to comment either on or off camera. Many were heard figuring out if they were included in the gag order.

Standing among a group of survivors, I said, “The wounds are still open…” To which another said, “They always will be…”While another survivor pointed out that every time you confront WOFF, you are risking your career and indeed your personal safety. Several took that risk during the past few months and now, there is no immediate reward save the inner satisfaction of knowing you did what you knew was best at the time. The waiting game continues. I can only imagine the inner turmoil of angst and despair which Matthew may be fighting. When will justice be served in Rutherford County not just for Matthew Fenner, but for the hundreds of others near and far damaged by the practices of WOFF?

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(Copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation ) This is post number 606.

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7 thoughts on “MISTRIAL: The wounds are still open…”

  1. John, do you know what the documents the juror disseminated to the rest of the jury that lead to the mistrial?

  2. Mike,

    If memory serves me correctly they were described by the attorneys reviewing them as questions surrounding the case and case law which was improperly quoted and/or applied. The word I received this afternoon was that those particular documents had been sealed, presumably by the Judge. My curiosity is with yours and just as strong.

    John

  3. John, the question the Jurors asked about Matthew and Brooke giving him permission to live with his grandparents and when it was. Can you elaborate on this testimony and who gave it?

  4. If these documents were sealed by the Judge, how could this juror or anyone else possibly get access to them? Sounds like there is a missing piece to this puzzle.

    Lahna

  5. John, I appreciate your very accurate account. The emotions … or display of same…by the defense attorney certainly added to and underscored the mood in the court room.

  6. Kim,

    This came out during Sarah’s testimony on Friday of the trial. It came across as a throw-down. Almost like an -“I dare you, cross this line.” It is not clear for sure what would have happened if Matthew had refused prayer, but he believed it would not have been better for him. Does that help?

    John

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