Jurors can't agree about ex-pastor's felony case
Tanner found guilty of indecent exposure
By Eric Fleischauer
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A Decatur federal jury on Wednesday found former pastor Gradson Tanner guilty of indecent exposure, a misdemeanor, but could not agree on a verdict for the felony charge of abusive sexual contact.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Estes said the government plans to re-prosecute the felony count. Both charges arose from Tanner's encounter with an undercover agent at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in July.
Mistrial on second count
Four hours after beginning deliberations, the jury advised the judge it had a verdict on one count but was at an impasse on the other. U.S. District Judge Scott Coogler urged the jury to try to reach a verdict on the second count, but 21/2 hours later, he declared a mistrial.
Afterward, defense attorney Jake Watson said the government should refrain from taking the felony count to another trial.
"Gradson's suffered enough. The family's suffered enough. The community has suffered enough," Watson said. "He's been punished."
Tanner, now unemployed, lost his pastorate at Salem United Methodist Church. He has been separated from his wife and two children.
"Broke though we may be, we'll be back here fighting if they want another trial," Watson said. "We're not going to plead guilty to that count."
Tanner, 48, was one of 27 charged in a July operation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. One defendant has been acquitted. Several have been found guilty by a jury or have pleaded guilty.
The former pastor was emotional after the verdict. He hugged several friends who had stayed in the courtroom with him during the two-day trial.
During its deliberations, the jury wrote three separate questions to the judge. The first two requested definitions of various legal terms contained in the indictment. The third asked for a transcript of the testimony of the government's main witness, Refuge Officer Greg Blanks.
Blanks, based in Savannah, Ga., was the only undercover agent in the four-day operation, conducted at Beaverdam Boardwalk Trail, Arrowhead Landing and Flint Creek Trail. Tanner was charged with sexual conduct at Flint Creek Trail, which adjoins the handicapped fishing pier on Alabama 67.
During closing arguments Wednesday, Watson argued that Blanks aggressively encouraged Tanner, giving Tanner implied permission to initiate sexual contact.
"Blanks knows what he's doing," Watson said. "He engaged (Tanner) immediately. Blanks is liking it. Blanks is watching it."
Tanner testified that he fondled himself through his pockets while Blanks watched. Blanks was physically aroused, Tanner testified, before he touched the agent's crotch.
Blanks has said numerous male defendants touched him during the Wheeler operation. He has performed numerous other undercover operations, also aimed at homosexual conduct, in South Carolina.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Estes argued that Tanner had demonstrated his lack of credibility before trial by lying about the incident to the press and to his wife. In the days after the incident, Tanner said he was cited for indecent exposure when he urinated at the park.
"That gives you insight into the defendant's truthfulness," Estes said.
Blanks testified that Tanner approached him and, without provocation, grabbed his crotch and exposed his own genitals. The officer said both actions took place on the main trail.
The location at which Tanner exposed himself was significant. The indecent exposure count required the jury to find that the exposure was "under circumstances in which he knew his conduct was likely to cause affront or alarm in a public place."
The defendant said Blanks followed him farther down the trail after the contact, then stepped with him off the trail, before Tanner exposed himself. Tanner said there was no one on the trail that could have witnessed the act.
The felony count that hung the jury, abusive sexual contact, required the jury to find that the contact was without Blanks' permission. The first question the jury submitted to the judge asked for the legal definition of "permission." The judge responded that the federal statute at issue did not define the word.
"That's the crux, isn't it?" Estes said in his closing argument. "The question is, did he have permission?"
The jury could not agree on an answer.
To support his theory that Blanks encouraged Tanner's conduct, Watson referred the jury to testimony from Blanks that no members of the public complained that they had been touched during the Wheeler investigation. Wheeler's local law enforcement officer, Refuge Officer Darrin Speegle, testified that to his knowledge no member of the public had ever gone to park headquarters to complain of being touched inappropriately.
The officer did say he had received many complaints over the years from citizens who witnessed sexual activity at the park.
Speegle, who coordinated the operation, said officials at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service promised him they would provide audio and video equipment for the operation, but reneged shortly before the operation was to start because the equipment was in use elsewhere. Speegle said he decided to go forward without the equipment.
Tanner was released on a continuing bond. Coogler said he would delay sentencing until final disposition of the felony count.
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