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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Will youth minister Matt Pitt go to prison because political forces want him unlawfully convicted?

Matt Pitt (right) and attorney Nikki Bonner
(From WVTM)
(Update at 10:55 a.m. on 4/23/15 -- An Alabama jury this morning found youth evangelist Matt Pitt not guilty of impersonating a peace officer. It's heartening to know that sometimes justice does prevail, even in Alabama.)

Youth minister Matt Pitt's refusal to go along with powerful political and business interests in Alabama probably led to his prosecution on charges of impersonating a peace officer. Courtroom oddities at this week's trial in Jefferson County have heightened our concern that an innocent man might go to prison. It would not be the first time that has happened in Alabama--especially when someone has stood up to the state's conservative elites, as Matt Pitt has.

A jury is expected to reach a verdict today.

We reported last night that Pitt's legal troubles started not long after he refused a request for his ministry (The Basement) to endorse a slate of conservative political candidates. The troubles also started not long after Pitt declined to place his ministry's money with Bryant Bank, which is led by powerful University of Alabama trustee and football booster Paul Bryant Jr. Finally, Pitt seems to have made enemies because of his desire to build an inclusive ministry, one that crosses racial boundaries.

I don't claim to be an expert on Alabama case law regarding impersonation of a peace officer, but my research indicates Pitt never should have been prosecuted--either in the current Jefferson County case, or in an earlier one in Shelby County. He certainly should not be convicted, but given Alabama's toxic "justice" environment, I would not be surprised if that happens.

My understanding is that the alleged crime of impersonation usually requires some kind of affirmative or creative action that is designed to deceive the public into believing one is a member of law enforcement. For example, a person who creates or unlawfully obtains a badge or uniform, and then uses it to deceive the public, likely would be violating the law.

I've seen little or no sign that Pitt did that. The Jefferson County Sheriff's Office gave him an honorary badge as an apparent pat on the back for his work with The Basement. We haven't seen any indication that Pitt asked for the badge. It seems unclear if any member of the public ever was deceived into thinking Pitt actually was a law-enforcement officer. In fact, the Pitt defense team obtained an affidavit from witness Brad Lunsford, who stated that Pitt never acted in a way that made him think he was a police officer.

Judge Tommy Nail, who is presiding over the Jefferson County case, seemed to support my research based on this report Monday from al.com:

(Prosecutor Shawn) Allen described that in the Florida incident, Pitt laid out his honorary badge for the Walton County officer who pulled him over, in an attempt to get out of a speeding ticket. "Everybody knows it's an honorary badge," Nail said. "It doesn't carry any authority to do some act. Laying an honorary badge out, in my opinion, doesn't meet the elements of impersonation."

That hinted that Nail was going to hold the prosecution to the actual law; in fact, Nail all but shouted from the bench that Pitt was not guilty. But the judge's tone changed the next day. And that brings us to those courtroom oddities? Let's count them:

(1) Nail makes a radical change of course -- On Monday, the judge said he would not allow evidence of Pitt's previous encounters with law enforcement. That is in keeping with Alabama Rule of Evidence 404, which generally prohibits evidence of alleged prior wrongs. This is how al.com's Greg Garrison reported Nail's finding, which appears to be a correct statement of law:

Nail also ruled that he would not allow Pitt's previous encounters with law enforcement as evidence.

Allen said the prosecutors planned to show a pattern of behavior by Pitt. Nail said those incidents are not relevant to the Jefferson County incident.

"None of that's coming in, in my opinion," Nail said.

One day later, Nail took a 180-degree turn, as reported by WBRC, Fox 6, in Birmingham:

Matt Pitt's legal team lost ground on Tuesday after Judge Tommy Nail reversed his decision to keep evidence from a previous case out of this trial.

Pitt is currently on trial in Jefferson County after being charged with impersonating a peace officer in June 2013.

On Monday, Nail ruled that prosecutors couldn't enter evidence or testimony from a 2012 Shelby County case in which Pitt was also charged with impersonating an officer.

That changed Tuesday. Nail allowed a current and former Calera police officer to give testimony in that 2012 case. Pitt pleaded to a lesser charge in Shelby County. However, his bond was revoked and he did serve jail time in Shelby County because his Jefferson County charges violated the terms of his plea deal.

Nail said the only reason he allowed this testimony was to show Pitt's intent in the Jefferson County case.

What caused Nail to change his mind? We don't know, but it smells funny--and it greatly enhances the chance of a conviction. Nail was right the first time--those prior incidents are not relevant to the Jefferson County incident.

(2) Why didn't Matt Pitt take the stand? -- It seems to be common practice for criminal-defense lawyers to keep their clients off the stand. I've seen that strategy backfire in numerous cases, especially in the prosecution of Don Siegelman and Richard Scrushy. Scrushy has admitted the strategy backfired. I'm concerned that it's going to happen here.

Matt Pitt is an articulate guy, and he is innocent. Those kinds of defendants need to take the stand, especially in a case the prosecution should not have brought in the first place.

I will take off my reporter's objective glasses for a moment and state that I hope Matt Pitt is found not guilty--and that's because justice demands it. Unfortunately, Alabama courtrooms all too often are the place where justice goes to die. I pray that will not be the case today.

(Update: An earlier version of this post stated that defense witness Brad Lunsford did not testify. That information was incorrect. Lunsford did testify, and we have updated the post to remove incorrect information.)


Anonymous said...

Don't know much about Matt Pitt, but I have to question why a judge would make a ruling on Monday and then reverse himself on Tuesday.

Anonymous said...

That video is terrifying. Cops barge into your home and draw their weapons all because a guy was given an honorary badge. Unreal!

Alice Copeland Brown said...

ALabama courtrooms is where justice goes to die. Brilliant and true statement. And these folks were WHITE!!! So here's the question? Does an arrest warrant ALSO mean that legally you have the right to search a house?
Don't think so. Law is the cornerstone of our society. But when a law is immoral or evil, we as Americans have a responsibility to CHANGE that law. And most assuredly an arrest warrant should not be legal cause to search someone's home. ALice Copeland Brown

Anonymous said...

The video has been removed.

What did Matt plea guilty to in Shelby County?
It seems to me that if he pled guilty, he knew he was violating a law when he did it again.

legalschnauzer said...

I guess the video was removed by the YouTube account holder. Not sure why.

My memory is that Pitt, on the advice of some rather poor lawyers, pleaded guilty in Shelby County to "attempted impersonation of peace officer."

Robby Scott Hill said...

I feel bad for Judge Nail. At the best, Bryant Jr. will support his opponent in the next election. At the worst, Judge Nail may find himself the next victim of the Judicial Inquiry Commission and/or a bogus prosecution.

Robby Scott Hill said...

The Apostle Paul was God’s missionary, even in prison. He shared the good news with the soldiers who guarded him. He shared the gospel with a runaway slave. He wrote four letters which have helped to strengthen and encourage believers down through the centuries. Even though Paul was a prisoner, did he stop preaching and teaching (Acts 28:31)

legalschnauzer said...

That's an interesting point, Rob, about possible repercussions for Judge Nail. Our system is broken enough, and Bryant & Co. seem thuggish enough, that we can't rule that out.

Why do you think Judge Nail changed his mind on allowing evidence of alleged prior wrongs? Interested in your thoughts on that.

That's what really concerned me and made me think some type of fix might be in place. Glad to see I was wrong about that.

Anonymous said...

So PBJ and Riley didn't get their way on this one? That's unusual. I wonder what happened.

itdoesnt matter said...

How does one assume Brad Lunsford did not testify in court?

legalschnauzer said...

I was wrong about that and need to correct the post. Was going on al.com reports, which did not mention Lunsford testifying. But later saw on 1-2 TV reports that Lunsford did testify.