Billy Spade of Hico, West Virginia was acquitted of the battery charges levied against him after he admittedly spit tobacco juice on Westboro Baptist Church member and spokeswoman Shirley Phelps-Roper at a 2010 protest in the capital city of Charleston.
Spade testified in Charleston Municipal Court that as the son of a deceased miner and a former coal miner himself he was intrigued by the pickets members of the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) scheduled around the country at military funerals and high-profile events and he seized the opportunity to "come see what it was all about."
But Spade didn't just go see the protest in action, he became part of the protest after he claimed he was offended by protesters holding signs that said "Thank God for dead coal miners."
"But it was the sign that allegedly said "Thank God for dead Marines" that sent him over the edge," he told the crowded courtroom, reports the Charleston Gazette.
Spade testified that an improvised explosive device (IED) had killed a close friend who was serving with the United States Marines in Afghanistan and after supposedly seeing this sign held by Shirley Phelps-Roper he "took aim at it and spat tobacco juice at it" hitting Phelps-Roper instead.
The Gazette reported that "Charleston Police Sgt. Nick Null, part of the detail assigned to the April 11, 2010, protest, saw the incident and charged Spade with battery. Null testified that he saw Spade spit tobacco juice onto Phelps-Roper's chest. Spade said he spit on one of her signs, which she was holding above her shoulders. After Spade was led off, Phelps-Roper said to Null, "I'm glad you pigs finally did something," according to the officer."
Shirley Phelps-Roper vehemently disagrees with the testimony of the police office and Billy Spade and told Digital Journal: "This event served to restate many of our signs and remind every eye that sees it: One year ago, God sent 29 walking, talking, living, breathing rebels against him to hell, but first he turned them into human projectiles, rocketing them across that mine and slamming them against the sides thereof, and sending them directly to hell (see Luke 16:18-32)."
"There was a LOT of lying going on in that courtroom," said Phelps-Roper.
"Just from the articles, I see that the criminal said that my signs said this and that, and we don’t have such a sign as he said about Marines. We have a signs that says Thank God for Dead Soldiers. It does not single out Marines. They discussed that we should Thank God for Dead Marines in that courtroom. I love that."
Spade told the jurors " He tried to talk to Phelps-Roper but she refused to engage him. Instead, she and the others chanted and sang songs, including a version of "Country Roads" with altered lyrics that thanked God for West Virginia coal miners burning in hell," reports the Gazette. "I told her, if she wanted to protest coal miners, then she should walk her ass back to Kansas and turn her lights off," Spade said.
Phelps-Roper said: "The man said he tried to talk with me. He did not. I was singing. The first time I noticed him up close was when he spit in my face, not at a sign, which you know I hold to my sides, and not on my clothing," she told Digital Journal.
As to the statements made by the police officer during his testimony, Phelps-Roper said: The police lied on this wise. They did indeed get right after the guy and arrest him. At which point I said “Why are you arresting him? You let the guy that burned my hair go free.” A police officer testified that I said something like it was good that the pigs did something. Or some such. Of course he testified that way to paint me in a false light and engender anger toward me and curry favor and sympathy for the criminal."
The only thing that all the parties agreed upon in court was that the members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church came to Charleston in April 2010 to picket following a deadly methane gas explosion at the Upper Big Branch which claimed the lives of twenty-nine West Virginia coal miners.
The Gazette reported the WBC members "carried signs that read, "God is your enemy," "Your Pastor is a lying whore," "Fags are beasts," "God hates America" and "God hates WV." One sign read "Miners in hell" and featured a flaming skull wearing a miner's helmet."
They were met by counter-protesters, as well as a flash-mob sponsored by Covenant House, and followed to each location the WBC has scheduled for their weekend of picketing.
The jury was shown a short video clip from the days protests in which "Spade can be seen with his hands cupped around his mouth, screaming "Hell bound! Hell bound!" at the Westboro protesters."
"Senior Assistant City Attorney Gene Webb, who served as a prosecutor during the trial, told the jury to ignore Westboro's message and focus on the act of spitting.
"We have a victim who, I assure you, no one in the city agrees with [her] message," he said, "but the Constitution of the United States protects their right to free speech," as confirmed by the United Supreme Court, "no matter how despicable it might be."
"In defense of Spade, Kanawha County Public Defender George Castelle said Phelps-Roper's actions and signs were carefully calculated to goad others into responding."
"They were signs designed to make [Spade] angry. They were signs designed to provoke him," he said. "They got what they wanted because they invited it. Castelle noted that the counter-protesters, who numbered between 50 and several hundred, applauded Spade as he calmly left the scene with police officers."
"Billy Spade is not a criminal," Castelle said. "If anything, he's a hero," reports the Gazette.
After an hour of deliberations the jury returned with its not-guilty verdict.
Castelle told the Gazette "He was relieved the jury decided that Spade's spitting was not a crime, under all of the disturbing circumstances, and that he was proud of Spade for standing his ground."
Spade said "I still get mad when I think about it," a year later.
"What an amazing face they put on," said Phelps-Roper. I’m happy they did this," she said. "As each of the events are from God and the purpose is to fill up the cup of their iniquity and to bring in the fullness of the gentiles."
"So, at the end of the day, I’m most grateful for that entire thing," she added. "I did not present myself into the area, and it all happened perfectly according to the will of our Heavenly Father."
Video's, available on YouTube, from the various protests and counter-protests held in Charleston during the visit by the members of the Westboro Baptist Church.