Mr. John Reyes, convicted of trespass in connection with a Christian rally at a Lynchburg public high school, was sentenced to twelve months in jail (six months suspended), and began serving his time on August 31st. The conviction grew out of an incident in November 1997, in which Mr. Reyes and about 300 fellow students from Liberty University assembled in order to bear testimony against abortion, and then peacefully dispersed when asked to do so by police. Since his incarceration, he has had a remarkable ministry of Bible reading, Bible study, and witnessing to his fellow inmates, at least several of whom have already professed faith.
Organization for the anti-abortion rally occurred when the Rev. Flip Benham, a leader of Operation Rescue from Texas, asked students at Liberty University if they would consider going to E. G. Glass High School to exercise their free speech rights in an effort to bring a pro-life message to the high school students. Mr. Benham has organized such events in other states, and had never been arrested for them. Instead of a handful of Liberty University students, approximately 300 showed up that next morning, virtually surrounding the high school. They held up placards which graphically demonstrated the option of life (portrayed by a smiling baby) and the option of death (portrayed by pictures of aborted babies). It was a way of illustrating the truth of Scripture-that the way of the world is the way of death, while the way of life is found in Jesus Christ.
Almost immediately, school administration officials called the police. The police convinced the demonstrators that the City of Lynchburg had "privatized" the sidewalks leading the several hundred feet up to the high school. (Almost everywhere else, a sidewalk is considered to be a public place.) The leaders of the rally, Mr. Benham and Mr. Reyes, asked the police if they could take a few minutes to disperse the crowd. The officers agreed. After a brief time of prayer, the students left the property, and were totally gone a few minutes later. No arrests were made at that time.
However, several weeks later, a grand jury returned indictments. The use of a grand jury in a misdemeanor case is viewed by many supporters of the defendants as being highly unusual-a point which the prosecutor disputes (see below). Mr. Benham and Mr. Reyes were charged with three counts each: failure to obtain a parade permit, disorderly conduct, and trespass.
The defense agreed to a non-jury trial. With the police testifying that everyone was orderly, the disorderly conduct charge was not sustained. The charge of failure to obtain a permit likewise failed. But much to the defense attorney's amazement, Judge Richard C. Miller not only found both defendants guilty of trespass, but also meted out what many observers regard as an excessively harsh, even vengeful, sentence.
The apparent inequity of the sentence is best seen in that many convicted felons in Judge Miller's courtroom have not had to serve jail time. According to a report by the Evangelical Press, court records reveal that the judge "has allowed persons convicted of grand larceny, cocaine possession and assault and battery to avoid jail time. Others convicted of felony hit and run and felony escape received only three months of jail time from Miller. 'It appears that Judge Miller regards preaching the gospel to high school students to be a greater offense than the possession of cocaine,' said Michael I. DePrimo, staff attorney for the Center for Law and Policy," which represented both defendants.
Mr. Benham served his sentence. He was released after three onths in jail, having earned one day off the sentence for each day of good behavior.
It was during the trial that the local Reformed pastor became involved in the lives of the defendants. The Rev. Richard E. Knodel, Jr., pastor of Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, decided to go to the trial just in order to find out what was going on. What he discovered disturbed him. According to Mr. Knodel, and based on his experience with Presbyterian government, what had transpired "was an example of judicial tyranny."
In Richard Knodel's eyes, the harshness of sentence was particularly inappropriate in the case of Mr. Reyes, who had never been in trouble with the law. There was not even a traffic ticket to blot his record.
But what has particularly surprised the Orthodox Presbyterian minister has been the reaction of the Christian community in Lynchburg. "I've been virtually the only pastor" who visited the pair in jail, declared the cleric. The incident "has revealed a real Pharisaism" among Lynchburg's Christians. In his opinion, "Christians by and large are quite passive."
The expression of sympathy and interest by Pastor Knodel led John Reyes, over the past several months, to begin regularly attending Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Although he has not formally joined, he is considered a part of the church community.
According to Mr. Knodel, the apathy towards the plight of those in jail extended even to the Rev. Jerry Falwell, founder of the famed Thomas Road Baptist Church and Liberty University. Pastor Knodel believes that evidence exists which points to Mr. Falwell having conversed with the authorities prior to the pursuit of indictments through the grand jury process. "He offered to pay for any police charges" incurred from the incident at the high school. (Indeed, in the words of Dick Knodel, "Mr. Benham sent back to Jerry Falwell the several hundreds of dollars of honorarium, in order to pay for the police expense.") In Mr. Knodel's view, the reason why Mr. Falwell did not come to the aid of those who had been charged was because Mr. Benham "caused him political trouble."
Mr. Knodel said: "I found so much dissembling on the part of the city, and on the part of the religious community. For instance, while Dr. Falwell declared that he was helping the Benham family, he was refusing to see Mr. Benham's two sons who were star baseball players at Liberty University. Mrs. Benham and their two smaller children had traveled to Lynchburg from Dallas, Texas, to visit the husband in jail, but no money was given to the family to help with travel expenses at the time. Dr. Falwell didn't even visit him in jail for the first two months of his stay."
Rubbing shoulders with the pro-life activists has been an eye-opening experience for Pastor Knodel. In his estimation, many of the Operation Rescue leaders are at least as Biblically-oriented as many Calvinists. Many of these anti-abortion activists have adopted what Mr. Knodel called a Reformed perspective on many practical aspects of life, including church-state relations. In his estimation, many of these pro-lifers are either charismatic or Reformed in their theology.
As a result of the trial in Lynchburg, Mr. Knodel became actively involved in pro-life activities. He recently was in Orlando, working with Operation Rescue. That movement, having paid dearly for running afoul of draconian federal statutes enacted under Bill Clinton and enforced by Janet Reno's Justice Department, usually does not today block access to abortion clinics. Today, the usual tactic is that of preaching and proclaiming the gospel and the truth about unborn life.
Despite the non-violent approach, at least two ministers from Operation Rescue at the gathering in Orlando were arrested on petty charges. Mr. Knodel then stepped into the gap and himself became a street-side preacher. In doing so, he found an exhilaration: "I had a ball! I was preaching the crown rights of Christ, the law of God, and the truths of Romans 1. . . . I just got the greatest kick out of this." Richard Knodel said that abortion clinics will often send their employees outside to where the anti-abortionists are gathered, to try to serve as a psychological line of defense. However, in that type of setting, "You're often able to preach to people who are absolutely opposed to the gospel." The Lynchburg minister professes: "I try to bring in the gospel." He urges people to "give up the struggle [against God], and come to Christ."
Being able to preach to hardened sinners who would probably never darken the door of a church is, perhaps, an example of the Lord's laughter, manifested in Psalm 2. There have been many ironies in the cases of Mr. Benham and Mr. Reyes. For example, not only was Flip Benham able to witness of his faith while in jail-while there, he was able also to teach illiterate graduates of E. G. Glass High School how to read.
But it has been the impact of John Reyes that has been the most astounding. After an appeals court refused to overturn his conviction, he surrendered to authorities to begin serving his six months behind bars.
According to Pastor Knodel, his parishioner has made a profound impression. John's cell block "has been radically altered" over the past couple of weeks.
The transformation of the jail started when John first entered a holding cell. He was allowed to have his Bible almost immediately. One of the half dozen guys in that cell asked him if he would read the Bible out loud for him. Soon, all the inmates there asked him to read the Bible out loud. Indeed, they wouldn't let him alone-they demanded that he keep reading, all that night and the next morning as well!
Within two days, he was moved to a 25-man cell. It was then that John's stature came into play. Mr. Reyes is a diminutive man, barely over five feet tall. The other prisoners had seen him on local television, and on the broadcast he had, as he boldly proclaimed the gospel, seemed much larger than he is in real life. As he was moved into the larger cell, one of the men said, "You can't be John Reyes! We saw him on TV-he's this big guy!" At that point, John just burst into laughter, and the whole place then fell into laughter, too. That broke the ice, and opened the way for the young man to continue his ministry.
According to Richard Knodel, several of the hardest guys in the jail have gone to John at night-kind of like Nicodemus' going to Jesus at night-to speak of spiritual things and to confess that their lives are beyond control. There have apparently already been several genuine conversions.
The jailhouse revival appears to be having an effect on the men, even after release from jail. On September 12th, a man who had just gotten out of prison at 5:30 that Sunday morning walked an hour and a half in order to attend Grace Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and to sit under Pastor Knodel's preaching.
In the view of many of those sympathetic to Mr. Reyes, just as in the case of Joseph, sold into slavery, John Reyes' enemies meant it for evil. But the sovereign Lord meant it for good. And the jailhouse testimony of John Reyes is having an impact which will be revealed in eternity.
[Editor's Note: Those who wish to write to John Reyes may do so at: PO Box 6018, Lynchburg, Virginia 24505.
Those who wish to express their opinion to the government officials most involved in this case may do so by contacting them at the following:
Mr. William Petty, (540)847-1593, ext. 225
The Honorable Richard C. Miller, 900 Court Street, Lynchburg, Virginia 24504, (540)847-1490.]
An Interview With the Prosecutor
Mr. William Petty, state's prosecutor, granted P&R News an interview on September 17, 1999. He stated that "the facts that are being reported nationwide are totally wrong. The reports suggest that this was a group standing on a public sidewalk." He later added that many in the religious press are "really not interested in the facts of this case."
According to Mr. Petty, "a number of them [those at the rally] went inside the school and confronted them [the high school students] at lockers." He also stated that some of the demonstrators swarmed school buses, and that Liberty University students were "screaming at them [the high schoolers] that they were going to hell."
He also indicated that those at the rally were asked three times to leave before the police arrived.
The issue for him, and for the community, was that of safety. The Liberty students "frankly scared the [high school] students and school administrators to death."
The reason why the police did not arrest anyone immediately, declared Mr. Petty, is because "they were simply overwhelmed." (There were approximately 45 officers who were at the scene.) He suggested that the police were afraid of inciting a riot among the Liberty University students, if arrests had been attempted then.
In Mr. Petty's view, the arrests and prosecutions were not about the message or the content of what was being conveyed, "it's about tactics." He opined that "this community [of Lynchburg], believe me, is about as conservative as any community in the country."
He conceded that "six months in jail is not your typical trespass sentence." In his opinion, the reason for the harsh sentence is because the defendants "told the judge, not only did we not do anything wrong, we're going to do it again." The stiff sentence, then, was meted out in order to signal that this type of behavior was unacceptable. "When they chose to confront the system . . . with this arrogant attitude," he said, the judge gave a long sentence. Attorney Petty said: "I attribute a lot of this [the sentencing] to bad lawyering [by the defense]." He also stated: "Had they [the defendants] moved to the sidewalk, this [prosecution] would not have happened." He added that the sidewalks are public, rather than private.
In a follow-up email, Mr. Petty declared that the defendants "did not go into the school to the best of my knowledge. However, they did not remain on the public sidewalk. They were in an area just outside of the school building where buses drop students off. Under Virginia law, any person who acts in concert with others in a criminal act can be held responsible for the actions of the entire group."
In response to a question, the Commonwealth's representative said that the point being raised about grand jury indictment for a misdemeanor demonstrates a misunderstanding of Virginia law. A General District Court tries most cases, and the defendant has the right to appeal to the Circuit Court for a full re-trial. Because the state knew that these cases would be appealed, they decided to avoid trial at the first level, and this is done by seeking a grand jury indictment. "I have indicted people for traffic violations" using the grand jury, Mr. Petty stated. Other instances where he has used the grand jury in misdemeanor matters include: contributing to the deliquency of a minor; violating a protective order; petty larceny; and domestic assault. He stated: "I think that if you speak with any other Commonwealth's Attorney in the state you will find that the procedure of presenting indictments for misdemeanors is not at all uncommon, and certainly not 'unprecedented.'"