Christianity

Jury deliberation to continue Tuesday in gay beating trial

The jury in the case of a North Carolina minister accused of orchestrating the beating of a gay congregant deliberated for about an hour Monday before going home for the night. Deliberations are to resume Tuesday.

Brooke Covington, 58, a longtime minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina, is accused of leading the 2013 beating of former member Matthew Fenner to expel his "homosexual demons."

The defense called no witnesses.

During closing arguments, 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.

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."

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 there were inconsistencies in other witnesses' testimony.

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

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

Covington, who pleaded not guilty, is the first of five church members to face trial in the case. Each will be tried separately.

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. He testified that he didn't ask them to stop, fearing it would make things worse

The final witness, Rachael Bryant, testified Monday that she had seen several people being blasted while she was in the church and that trying to leave only made it worse.

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

Bryant said she was present when Fenner was attacked. She said it was obvious the group was upset with Fenner because they thought he was homosexual.

She testified that Covington said, "The way you hold your hands, the way you cross your legs, that's all homosexual devils and we are going to get it out of you."

As part of an ongoing, two-year investigation into abuse of Word of Faith Fellowship congregants by church leaders, The Associated Press interviewed four ex-church members who said they witnessed Fenner's assault.

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 said he fled after being attacked.

There have been numerous delays in the case.

At first, the five defendants were represented by the same attorneys — all members of Word of Faith Fellowship. The prosecutor filed a motion in 2015 to disqualify the law firm, citing conflicts of interest. A judge agreed, but the church appealed. A year later, though, the church attorneys withdrew the appeal, and the defendants got their own new attorneys.

One defendant, Sarah Anderson, left the church in 2015, saying her 1-year-old son was being abused.

Anderson testified Friday that she participated in the assault and 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.

During her testimony Friday, Anderson confirmed what the AP reported: that the assistant district attorneys, Frank Webster and Chris Back, were involved in meetings to discredit Fenner.

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 is not charged in this case.

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Associated press writer Mitch Weiss contributed to this report. Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.

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Read more of AP's investigation of the Word of Faith Fellowship here

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The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate@ap.org