Man who hit Scientologist acquitted of battery charge
of The Tampa Tribune
May 24, 2000
CLEARWATER - A prominent critic of Scientology who admitted striking a church member was found not guilty of misdemeanor battery Tuesday.
One of six jurors in the two-day trial said a variety of factors led the panel to acquit Robert Minton.
The avowed Scientology foe used a protest sign to whack a church security officer, leaving him sprawled on a sidewalk with a small cut above his left eye.
"Nobody should hit anybody, but due to the circumstances, he was pressured into it," said the juror, who asked not to be identified.
Minton never disputed that he hit Richard Howd Jr. with the edge of a cardboard and foam placard during a brief protest outside the church's spiritual headquarters, the Fort Harrison Hotel in Clearwater,. Defense attorneys maintained that Minton acted in self-defense and that Howd was angling to be hit.
For two days, the defense attempted to portray the church as a vengeful organization that investigates and harasses anyone who dares to criticize it.
Howd's job, defense attorney Denis de Vlaming argued before the jury, was to provoke Minton into striking him so the millionaire New Hampshire retiree would be arrested and convicted.
Asked if she feared church retribution for the verdict, the juror responded: "That's why I don't want my name in the paper." Other members of the four-woman, two-man panel declined to comment.
Minton said the trial provided church critics an opportunity to showcase the very practices they find objectionable. But he said striking someone and getting arrested for it was not the proper way to go about generating publicity for his cause.
"My intention was to push him away from me and get him out of my face," he said in reference to the 10-minute confrontation that preceded the act of violence.
"There was certainly no intention to hurt Richard Howd, and I'm sorry that the metal clip that was on the sign cut him," Minton said.
In a written response to the verdict, church spokesperson Pat Jones said: "We're hopeful that ... this prosecution will at least help to prevent further acts of violence against our members."
Although four videotapes of the Halloween night incident show Minton striking Howd, they also show that Howd anticipated being struck and then played to the hilt the part of a wounded victim, de Vlaming told jurors.
On the witness stand, Howd said he didn't wear his glasses that night because the video camera he was operating had a tiny "peep sight." But de Vlaming produced a photograph of Howd filming a different demonstration using the same type of camera while wearing his glasses. Howd took them off because he hoped to be hit, the defense attorney said.
As he lay sprawled on a sidewalk after Minton struck him, Howd could be seen on videotape peeking through one eye, de Vlaming said. Then, when a policeman asked for identification, Howd pulled something out of his pocket and handed it the officer before resuming his horizontal pose, the lawyer told jurors.