Church[sic] critic's defense up today
By DAVID SOMMER
May 23, 2000
A critic of the Church[sic] of Scientology, on trial for battery, contends he was doing his victim a favor when he struck him with a protest sign outside the Fort Harrison Hotel on Halloween night.
During opening arguments in the trial of Robert Minton, a leading church[sic] opponent, defense attorney Denis de Vlaming conceded to jurors that his client's unusual defense "may seem strange to you."
Minton does not deny striking church[sic] member Richard Howd Jr. with a protest placard. In fact, of the four videotapes of the incident shown to jurors Monday, the only one that clearly depicts Minton shoving the edge of the sign into Howd's face was taken by Minton's friend.
But Howd had already used a video camera to strike out at Minton in an incident that was not clearly visible on any of the four tapes, de Vlaming told the jury. Minton was in the process of calling Clearwater police on a cell phone when Howd succeeded in provoking him to strike, his attorney said.
And by striking Howd, Minton ensured that Howd succeeded in his mission to discredit the church[sic] critic by drawing him into a situation that resulted in Minton's arrest, de Vlaming said.
The attorney likened Howd's job to that of a basketball player told to "take the foul to stop the shot." He said evidence will show that Howd, as a member of the church[sic]'s Office of Special Affairs, was under orders to do whatever it took to discredit Minton.
The defense team that includes de Vlaming and two other lawyers will get its chance today. Assistant State Attorney Bill Tyson rested his case late Monday after calling just two witnesses: Howd and the arresting police officer who happened to see the incident while stopped at a red light in front of the Fort Harrison.
A key defense witness in the case is former Scientologist Frank Oliver, who held a job investigating the background of church[sic] critics in the same department in which Howd now works.
Testifying outside of the hearing of jurors so that Pinellas County Judge Robert Morris Jr. could rule on what would be allowed during the trial, Oliver said members of the Office of Special Affairs are rewarded for discrediting church[sic] critics and punished if they fail in that mission.
A reward might include higher pay or a choice assignment, Oliver said. Punishment might be having to scrub all the toilets in the Fort Harrison Hotel, he said.
Minton, 53, a New Hampshire millionaire who made his money as a developer in the Boston area, faces a maximum of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine if convicted of the misdemeanor charge. Lawyers predicted the case could go to the jury late today.
The Halloween incident was already the subject of a civil court hearing at which a judge coined the term "picket chicken" for the sort of confrontations that take place whenever Minton or any other church[sic] critic stages a protest.
Pasco-Pinellas Circuit Judge Thomas Penick Jr. ended up revoking an emergency injunction that kept Minton well away from Howd and church[sic] property and instead decided that "both parties must be mutually restrained."
David Sommer can be reached at (727) 799-7413 or firstname.lastname@example.org