DEARBORN, Mich. — Controversial Florida Pastor Terry Jones, a Koran-burning advocate who has sparked Muslim outrage worldwide, including deadly riots in Afghanistan, held court to a media throng as he defended himself in a trial here that pitted his free-speech rights against fears of public violence in the nation’s largest Arab-American community.
The hearing was a legal rarity — a jury trial after Rev. Jones declined to pay a city-ordered peace bond that the county prosecutor said was needed to cover security costs associated with the minister’s planned protest near the nation’s largest mosque on one of Christianity’s holiest days, Good Friday. The estimated cost of the bond was $46,000. The pastor of the tiny Florida congregation has pledged to return next week if today’s protest is thwarted by the trial.
A three-man, four-woman jury was quickly impaneled at District 19 court in Dearborn late Thursday afternoon after Rev. Jones, who said he would continue with his plan to protest outside the Islamic Center of America, refused to pay the bond request and asked for trial.
Rev. Jones, who carries a firearm and accidentally discharged it in his rental car following a Detroit television station interview Thursday night, represented himself in court. He and co-defendant Marvin Sapp, also a pastor in his church, dressed casually in black Harley-Davidson T-shirts as they gave opening statements asserting their First Amendment right to peacefully protest in public. The city, which declined their permit, had offered the two the option of demonstrating in designated “free-speech zones,” including outside city hall, but they declined, calling such spaces unconstitutional.
The Rev. Jones, 59, who leads the small Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., told the court that he would carry out his plan, even if the jury rejected his bid and he was arrested.
“We are not criminals. We have respect for the law. We are coming there in peace,” Rev. Jones told the jurors, adding that it was his right to speak against “the radical element of Islam, which does exist, otherwise we could not have this problem.”
He pledged that he would not burn a Koran or engage in other provocative acts. He said the plans now call for just four members of his group Stand Up for America Now to occupy a grassy public median area across from the mosque. He added that his concern about radical Islam was broader than simply any activities in Detroit, adding that he had no animosity for people there.
“Obviously we do have a problem — maybe not in Dearborn or this mosque. We are not accusing them. We are simply speaking out on the issue on jihad, Sharia,” said Rev. Jones, who urged jurors to be open-minded, even as much public sentiment was against him.
The case, overseen by Judge Mark Somers, the son of Christian missionaries to India, was watched by free-speech advocates nationwide and monitored by the Michigan ACLU along with other religious and legal group.
The ACLU decried the violation of Rev. Jones’ rights on Thursday.
“We should combat hate speech with more speech,” said Rana Elmir, a spokeswoman for the Michigan ACLU. “I disagree vehemently with Rev. Jones’ message, but I believe wholeheartedly in his right to express himself.”
The case has led local news coverage this week and rallied churches in the heavily Arab suburb of Detroit that serves as corporate home to Ford Motor Co. and other auto-industry concerns. Church leaders, including local imams, pastors and rabbis, have held services geared at bringing residents together as media covered Rev. Jones’ every move.
Prosecutors said in trial Friday morning that Dearborn law enforcement officials had received more than 300 death threats after residents learned that Rev. Jones and his followers had advertised plans for their event. They said the city feared violence if Rev. Jones’ group was allowed to assemble.
Dearborn Police Chief Ron Haddad told the court he denied four permits from other groups that eventually pulled out of Friday’s planned protest – not simply Rev. Jones’ group. He testified that he did so to maintain public safety in the heavily trafficked area, which includes several other churches conducting Good Friday services. He said local church leaders told him that they were considering cancelling their Holy Day events.
From intelligence gathered by his investigators, Chief Haddad said, “There is a strong likelihood that … violence would occur.”
Wayne County Prosecutor Robert Moran said the case was not simply about free speech rights but rather safety.
“We’re not here to suppress open speech or prevent someone for saying what they want to say, nor are we here because we don’t like the message that this defendant brings,” he told the jury. “We are here because the conduct of the respondents will likely respond in a breach of the peace. It will be a fracas, a riot. “
While one traffic officer noted the heightened traffic and safety concern of such a demonstration, Rev. Sapp questioned whether such inconvenience was enough to squelch his group’s rights.
Prosecutors showed videotape of Rev. Jones condemning the Koran for crimes against humanity and Rev. Sapp lighting the Muslim holy text on fire at their church in Gainesville in a March ceremony called “International Judge the Koran Day.”
“I was the one with the lighter,” Rev. Sapp testified matter-of-factly as the female court reporter, wearing a Muslim headscarf, typed away.
A protest against that burning, which was broadcast over the Internet, turned violent in Afghanistan, with both Western UN employees and local Afghans among those targeted and killed in the protests.
Rev. Jones told the jury that that radical Islam promoted terrorist activities around the world, including “death, rape, and torture of people whose only crime is not being Islamic.”
Of his Koran burning: “What we did would indeed be insulting to some people, but only some people. To the hundreds of peoples around the world who have been burned, buried alive and stoned, they would consider that the burning of Koran would not be offensive.”