Hico man acquitted in Westboro Baptist spitting trial

The Charleston Gazette/April 8, 2011

Charleston, West Virginia - A Fayette County man was acquitted Friday of battery charges for spitting on a member of the Westboro Baptist Church during a protest outside a Catholic church last year.

Billy Spade of Hico told the jurors that as the son of a deceased coal miner, he was offended by protesters holding signs that said "Thank God for dead coal miners."

But it was the sign that said "Thank God for dead Marines" that sent him over the edge.

A roadside bomb killed a friend whom he looked upon as a little brother while he was serving as a Marine in Afghanistan, Spade said. So he took aim at Shirley Phelps-Roper's sign and spat at it.

Charleston Police Sgt. Nick Null, part of the detail assigned to the April 11, 2010, protest, saw the incident and charged Spade with battery.

During a jury trial Friday in Charleston Municipal Court - which is so rare as to be virtually unheard of - Null testified that the protesters from Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas were cordoned off on a section of sidewalk outside Charleston Catholic High School, across from Sacred Heart Co-Cathedral.

Westboro Baptist is a virulently anti-homosexual, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic congregation that blames permissive attitudes toward homosexuality for many tragedies. The U.S. Supreme Court recently upheld the church's right under the First Amendment to protest at military funerals.

In the wake of the explosion that killed 29 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, Westboro members traveled from Kansas to stage protests at various locations in the area, including the April 11 event in downtown Charleston.

During the weekend protests, members of the church - including children - 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.

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.

Spade, who has worked in construction and coal mining, said he had not planned to go to Westboro's protest, but his brother told him about it and he decided to go see "what made them tick."

"I couldn't believe it that people could come in here and thank God for dead coal miners and thank God for dead Marines," he said.

Spade tried to talk to Phelps-Roper, who is the daughter of Westboro pastor and leader Fred Phelps, 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, he said.

"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.

The jury also saw a short clip from television news coverage of the incident. In the video, 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, 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."

The jury deliberated for less than an hour before returning its not-guilty verdict to Municipal Judge Ann Charnock.

After the trial was over, Charleston City Attorney Paul Ellis said the decision to take Spade's case to trial had nothing to do with concerns that Westboro Baptist might file a lawsuit against the city.

"The officer charged the case and we prosecuted it," Ellis said. "In this case, the city didn't do anything wrong, so I never really had any concern about civil liability."

Castelle said 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.

Even a year after the incident, Spade said, Westboro's message bothers him.

"I still get mad when I think about it."

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