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Jurors convict Wheeler defendant

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com 340-2435

After 35 minutes of deliberation, a federal jury on Friday found a Decatur man guilty of public indecency and public lewdness for exposing his genitals to a federal officer at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge.

Sentencing of Walter E. Brannan, 48, will take place in about three months. Both crimes are misdemeanors but, according to Brannan's lawyer, the convictions mean Brannan must register with the state as a sex offender.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Estes, who prosecuted the two-day trial in Decatur, said he hoped the verdict "will have a deterrent effect on this type of activity at Wheeler Wildlife Refuge. We're pleased the jury listened to all of the evidence."

Admitted exposure

Brannan admitted he exposed his genitals to Georgia-based Refuge Officer Greg Blanks, on July 20, at Beaverdam Boardwalk in Limestone County. The site, near Interstate 565, is part of the North Alabama Birding Trail.

Beyond the exposure itself, Brannan and Blanks agreed on little.

In order to make its case, the government had to prove Brannan's conduct "was likely to cause affront or alarm" to either Blanks or members of the public. Much of the testimony revolved around whether Blanks was offended by the conduct — he said he was — and whether members of the public were likely to witness Brannan exposing himself. None did.

Bruce Gardner of Huntsville, Brannan's lawyer, argued that Blanks solicited the conduct and was not offended by it. He also argued that Blanks was guilty of entrapment.

"I considered (Blanks) a willing participant," Brannan testified.

Brannan testified Blanks winked at him soon after Brannan entered the 900-yard trail. They did not talk at that point, Brannan said, and Brannan walked quickly to the end of the trail, to get exercise, and had began his return when Blanks approached him. He said Blanks had followed him and initiated conversation by commenting on how fast Brannan walked.

Blanks then asked how Brannan had found out about the trail, the defendant testified, which Brannan took to mean the trail's popularity as a place for homosexuals to engage in sexual activity.

"I indicated you could find out about the boardwalk from locals or on the Internet," Brannan said.

Brannan said Blanks asked "to see what I had" three different times.

"At the same time he asked me that, his eyes dropped to my crotch," Brannan said. "I took it he was interested in seeing my genitals. ... It was obvious to me that he was interested in a sexual encounter."

Blanks also asked Brannan — who was wearing shorts and no shirt — about Brannan's necklace, which had a small padlock as a pendant.

"He asked who had the key," Brannan testified. "I told him my partner had the key."

Once he concluded Blanks wanted him to expose himself, Brannan repeatedly looked up and down the trail to make sure nobody could see them, he testified. He said Blanks reassured him that nobody would approach.

"I guess Mr. Blanks wanted to get off or have his jollies," Brannan said.

Blanks, who ticketed almost two dozen people for sexual misconduct over the four-day operation, said he did nothing to solicit Brannan or any other defendant. He said he did nothing but observe, and all those who exposed themselves did so without his encouragement.

He testified that he was "alarmed" when Brannan exposed himself.

"He's alarmed? He's astounded this would happen? I don't think so," said Gardner to the jury. "It's exactly what he wanted to have happen."

Estes disagreed.

"The fact that he wears a badge doesn't make him any less human," Estes argued. "Having someone expose his genitals to you is upsetting."

Gardner told the jury that defied common sense.

"He arrested 25 people for this in four days," Gardner said. "You couldn't get that kind of action on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras, unless you encourage it."

Blanks, dressed in a suit in a previous trial that resulted in an acquittal, was dressed in uniform at this trial.

The defendant, bald with a graying beard, wore a dark suit at trial. He testified his marriage of 26 years had recently ended in divorce, but he had been a "closeted" homosexual for three years.

Blanks said the defendant had an erection and fondled himself; Brannan denied this.

Brannan said he had engaged in homosexual encounters at Wheeler "four or five times" before July 20.

Gardner argued the jury should believe his client, in part because his client was honest that he had exposed himself. Brannan also admitted that he had a pierced penis and was wearing a ring through it when he met Blanks.

"Sure, he could have denied all this," Estes told the jury, "but there's one little detail. Officer Blanks saw the piercing. Of course he's going to admit (exposing himself). ... How else would Officer Blanks have known about the piercing?"

Estes told the jury the case had nothing to do with Brannan's sexual orientation.

"It has to do with the denial of access to this public land through his conduct," Estes said.

U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn blocked The Daily from attending some portions of the trial at which the jury was not present. She said her law clerk researched the issue and federal law did not require her to allow a reporter to be present.

She said The Daily was "totally inappropriate" in reporting that she had prevented it from covering portions of the first day of the trial. She did not say why she wanted the press excluded.

In a trial that began Monday, also involving sexual conduct at Wheeler, another jury found William M. Griffin, 53, of Cullman, guilty of the same two misdemeanor charges.

In December, a jury acquitted one defendant charged in connection with the four-day Wheeler operation. Several defendants have pled guilty.

The defendant in the next scheduled trial is Gary Huckaby, 68, a prominent Huntsville lawyer and former president of the Alabama Bar Association. The government has charged him with a felony.

After the trial, Gardner said the government had offered Brannan a plea bargain, but the deal required him to serve 30 days in jail and still would have left him as a registered sex offender.

"That's just Draconian for something like this," Gardner said. "I'm convinced this is an entrapment scheme."

He said his client would decide whether to appeal the conviction after sentencing.

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