The Houston Chronicle reports…
“Even with Pastor Joel Osteen of Lakewood Church – the largest protestant congregation in the country – testifying against them, four men from a small church were found not guilty of creating a disturbance last year when they repeatedly tried to shout Osteen down during a Sunday service.
“God is on our side,” said one of the men, 27-year-old Kevin Fessler, after the verdict. “We praise God.”
Fessler along with Mark DeRouville, 26; Matthew Martinez, 28; and Randall Valdez, 29, were acquitted by a jury after a two-day trial on charges of criminal trespass and creating a disturbance.
Two other men, Jacob Gardner, 27, and Richard Trudeau, 32, have yet to be tried in the case.
All of the men have admitted they stood up, one by one, and shouted that Osteen is a “false prophet” and that members of Lakewood would be damned if they followed him.
In court Wednesday, Osteen said the men would not have left if they hadn’t been taken out by security.
“I think they were passionate about what they believe,” Osteen testified in the trial of four of the men in Harris County court. “And they weren’t going anywhere.”
But jurors apparently believed the arguments of defense attorneys Brad Loper and Jon Stephenson who said the men were simply trying to get their message out and left when they were asked to leave.
“Let’s not criminalize speech,” Loper said in closings.
Prosecutor Chelsi Honeycutt left court without commenting, as did the jury.
All of the men, who are members of a small church in the East Texas town of Wells, were arrested on June 28 after shouting at Osteen from the audience.
During an hour of testimony, Osteen carefully chose his words, sounding more like a forgiving man of faith than an angry business owner.
“Not everyone agrees with us,” he said. “Not everyone interprets the scriptures the same way.”
Security was especially tight for Osteen’s appearance, including several tactical officers from the county’s Emergency Response Team and additional sheriff’s deputies, but County Court-at-Law Judge Bill Harmon allowed the pastor to come in and leave through the back door and wait in the judge’s chambers, according to testimony.
After Osteen’s testimony, lawyers for the four men successfully persuaded Harmon to dismiss the trespassing charge against three of the men. Prosecutors dropped the charge for the fourth man, meaning all four faced only a misdemeanor of disturbing a public meeting. If convicted, the maximum sentence was six months in jail.
In addition to widespread media attention, the trial also brought out people from Wells who hoped to see the men convicted.
“I wanted to see them in handcuffs,” said Patty Grove, a resident of Wells who disagrees with the teachings of the Church of Wells. “I wanted to see them wearing orange.”