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Opponent of church acquitted of battery
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000
LARGO -- Defense attorney Denis de Vlaming knew his audience.
Among the six jurors he faced during his closing argument Tuesday were a father of four and a single mother who turned out to be the jury forewoman.
So he condensed the three-year feud between Robert S. Minton and the Church of Scientology to a scenario any parent could grasp: a fight between children.
Minton, accused of misdemeanor battery against a Scientologist in Clearwater, is the kid who finally fights back after being pushed and heckled, de Vlaming submitted. The church, he said, is the child who started it all -- then cries foul.
De Vlaming urged the jury to be the savvy parent who sees the truth.
After 40 minutes of deliberation Tuesday, the jury agreed with him, acquitting Minton after a trial that turned a spotlight on the church's often aggressive way of reacting to its critics.
"He was pushed," de Vlaming said of Minton. "He was pushed, he was set up and they (the church) got what they wanted."
Prosecutor Bill Tyson said it was Minton who initiated the trouble, harassing church members to the point they felt the need to follow him.
"It's hard to argue self-defense when you're the one picking the fight," Tyson said, adding later that Minton, a New England millionaire crusading to reform Scientology, is 53 years old.
"This isn't kids pushing kids," Tyson said.
The charge was filed after Minton pushed church staffer Richard W. Howd with a picket sign the night of Oct. 31, 1999, after a day of cat and mouse.
Minton was greeted that morning by Scientologists at Tampa International Airport who told him to go home. He had come, he said, to find office space for a Scientology "watchdog group" that has since opened a headquarters in Clearwater.
When Scientologists followed him, Minton and a companion drove to Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater and began to picket.
After that, Scientologists followed him to his hotel. That night, Minton and his companion showed up at the home of a prominent Scientologist and videotaped the property, then went to picket again at the Fort Harrison, where Howd was waiting with his digital video camera.
Howd shadowed Minton closely, trying, he said, to create a record of everything Minton said and did. Minton said Howd was invading his space. Howd told the jury Minton appeared aggressive.
The alleged battery took place after a moment when the two apparently jostled each other. Minton turned to call police on his cell phone, but whirled around, pointing his picket sign, to stop Howd from following him. Howd was struck in the face by the sign and fell to the sidewalk.
The trial became a debate over which party was more guilty of causing the contact.
Pat Jones, a Scientology spokeswoman, said in a statement that the church appreciated the prosecutor's efforts.
"Mr. Minton knows what really happened," the statement said, "and we're hopeful that, regardless of the verdict, this prosecution will at least help to prevent further acts of violence against our members."
De Vlaming said Scientology staffers choreographed the incident in an ongoing attempt to get Minton arrested and ruin his credibility.
He put Frank Oliver on the stand, and the former member of the church's Office of Special Affairs testified that he received special training to go after church critics.
Tyson noted that Oliver is now on the advisory board of Minton's Clearwater organization.
De Vlaming pointed to what he said were several indications Minton was set up. Among them was a video that showed Howd sprawled motionless on the ground, his eyes closed. The tape then shows him opening his eyes, seeing the camera, then quickly closing them.
"Look at him," de Vlaming told the jury, ridiculing Howd. "Out cold! Needed an ambulance!"
Tyson said Minton was the one who stepped over the line. "He has the right to protest," the prosecutor said, "but one thing he doesn't have the right to do is break the law."
After the verdict, Minton said his purpose in coming to Clearwater was to tell the public about Scientology's way of dealing with critics, and the trial, he said, helped accomplish that.
One juror, Joyce Green of St. Petersburg, said the panel initially voted 5-1 to acquit Minton, but the vote was unanimous after they reviewed one of the videotapes of the incident.
There was no serious discussion of Scientology or its practices, she said.
"I think he was provoked, and a lot of it was set up," said Green, a home health aide. She said she might have reacted as Minton did, adding that Howd did not appear seriously hurt.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.