|Matt Pitt (right) and attorney Nikki Bonner|
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.)