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AP, Charlotte Observer seek access in church beating case

The Associated Press and the Charlotte Observer filed legal motions Wednesday to gain access to documents and lift a gag order in the case of a North Carolina minister accused of orchestrating the beating of a congregant to expel his “homosexual demons.”

The motions filed by the news outlets are related to the case of Brooke Covington, a minister at Word of Faith Fellowship in Spindale, North Carolina. She is charged with kidnapping and assaulting Matthew Fenner in the church’s sanctuary.

Covington is accused of urging others to slap, punch and choke Fenner for nearly two hours in January 2013 in a practice known as “blasting,” which involves intense screaming meant to drive out devils.

Judge Gary Gavenus declared a mistrial June 6 after the jury foreman brought unauthorized documents into deliberations. The judge sealed those documents and issued a gag order preventing witnesses, prosecutors, defense attorneys and jurors from discussing the case.

One of the news organizations’ motions, filed in Rutherford County Superior Court, called the gag order “a blanket, unconstitutional prior restraint on speech which would effectively and improperly curtail public discussion of this case by anyone with knowledge of the case.”

The jury was in its second day of deliberations when Perry Shade Jr. was charged with contempt for sharing documents the judge said compromised the integrity of the jury. The judge had warned jurors repeatedly not to do their own research or bring in outside materials.

Questions remain not only about how Shade was able to get the documents into the jury room, but what information they contained.

The Rutherford County Sheriff’s Department and the district attorney’s office are investigating Shade’s actions, sheriff’s Chief Deputy Ricky McKinney told the AP. He said the gag order prevented him from saying more.

The district attorney also cited the gag order in declining to discuss Shade’s actions and possible motivations.

Covington was the first of five people to face trial on charges of assaulting and kidnapping Fenner.

Fenner, now 24, said he was leaving a Jan. 27, 2013, prayer service when nearly two dozen people surrounded him. He testified during Covington’s trial that he wondered that night if he would die.

Earlier this year, the AP published an investigation detailing how Word of Faith Fellowship regularly assaulted congregants in a form of deliverance meant to “purify” sinners by beating out devils.

The sect was founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam, a former used car salesman. The church grew to about 750 members in North Carolina and nearly 2,000 in churches in Brazil and Ghana, with affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.

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Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.

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Read more of AP’s investigation of the Word of Faith Fellowship here: http://apne.ws/2lmuzDA

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The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate@ap.org

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