BALTIMORE – The father of a fallen Marine was awarded nearly $11 million Wednesday in damages by a jury that found leaders of a fundamentalist church had invaded the family's privacy and inflicted emotional distress when they picketed the Marine's funeral.
The jury first awarded $2.9 million in compensatory damages. It returned later in the afternoon with its decision to award $6 million in punitive damages for invasion of privacy and $2 million for causing emotional distress to the Marine's father, Albert Snyder of York, Pa.
Snyder sued the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church for unspecified monetary damages after members staged a demonstration at the March 2006 funeral of his son, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, who was killed in Iraq.
The defense said it planned to appeal and one of the church's leaders, Shirley Phelps-Roper, said the members would continue their pickets of military funerals.
Church members believe that U.S. deaths in the war in Iraq are punishment for the nation's tolerance of homosexuality.
Before the jury began deliberating the size of punitive damages, U.S. District Judge Richard Bennett noted the size of the compensatory award "far exceeds the net worth of the defendants," according to financial statements filed with the court.
Snyder sobbed when he heard the first verdict, while members of the church greeted the news with tightlipped smiles.
Church members routinely picket funerals of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan, carrying signs such as "Thank God for dead soldiers" and "God hates fags."
A number of states have passed laws regarding funeral protests, and Congress has passed a law prohibiting such protests at federal cemeteries, but the Maryland lawsuit is believed to be the first filed by the family of a fallen serviceman.
Snyder's suit named the church, its founder, the Rev. Fred Phelps, and his two daughters, Shirley Phelps-Roper and Rebecca Phelps-Davis, 46. Snyder claimed the protests intruded upon what should have been a private ceremony and sullied his memory of the event.
Attorneys for the church said in closing arguments Tuesday that the burial was a public event and that even abhorrent points of view are protected by the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of speech and religion.
In his closing arguments during the punitive damages phase, plaintiff attorney Craig Trebilcock described church members as bullies who "seek out those among us who are at the weakest point in our lives."
"That's why they've gotten away with it until this point," the attorney said, adding that grieving families were too weak to fight back "until this man."
Defense lawyer Jonathan Katz reminded jurors that punitive damages are designed to deter future conduct, but not bankrupt or financially destroy.
It was unclear if the plaintiffs will be able to collect the damages awarded.
The defense attorney said the assets of the church and the three defendants are less than a million dollars and the compensatory award is about three times the defendants' net worth, mainly in homes, cars and retirement accounts.
In his rebuttal, Trebilcock said it was up to jurors to decide the truthfulness of the financial documents, noting the documents show Rebecca Phelps-Davis has $306 in the bank.
Trebilcock noted Phelps-Davis is a practicing attorney and pointed to testimony by the defendants showing how much they traveled to spread their message.
"Rebecca Phelps has $306? She must be using Priceline.com. It doesn't make any sense."
The attorney urged jurors to determine an amount "that says don't do this in Maryland again. Do not bring your circus of hate to Maryland again."
The church has about 75 members.
Earlier, church members staged a demonstration outside the federal courthouse, which is located on a busy thoroughfare a few blocks west of Baltimore's Inner Harbor, while passing motorists honked and shouted insults.
Church founder Fred Phelps held a sign reading "God is your enemy," while his daughter Shirley Phelps-Roper stood on an American flag while carrying a sign that read "God hates fag enablers." Members of the group sang "God Hates America,"' to the tune of "God Bless America."