Jury acquits pastor of seducing teen


SALISBURY -- In a case that pitted members of a tight-knit congregation against each other and resulted in threats against the state's attorney's office, a 30-year-old youth pastor was acquitted yesterday of having sex with a 16-year-old member of his church.

A jury of eight men and four women deliberated 30 minutes before finding Joshua Wayne Lawson not guilty of two sexual offenses stemming from the alleged sexual relationship. Wicomico County Circuit Judge W. Newton Jackson III dismissed three other sexual offense charges against Lawson.

"Something like this is designed to destroy someone, but the Lord has a way of letting you know who you can trust and who will be there for you," Lawson said afterward. "The last few months have been a little stressful on me and the family."

After the verdict was read, the girl, now 17, sobbed, holding fast to her mother and father for support. The Sun does not name alleged victims of sexual offenses.

The girl's father later said: "I'm very disappointed, but I do know in my heart that God is going to take care of this in his own way, and I'm willing to step back and see what that will be."

The girl's father said he had expected a conviction. "I'm half-blown away."

The allegations that Lawson, a married father of two, had seduced the teenager surfaced in February and horrified members of New Life the Apostolic Church, founded 23 years ago by Lawson's father, Richard, who is the bishop of the 400-member Pentecostal church.

More than 30 members severed their ties to the church. Roughly 20 of them sat in the courtroom during the two-day trial to support the girl and her family.

Assistant State's Attorney Elizabeth L. Ireland, who prosecuted the case alongside Wicomico County State's Attorney Davis R. Ruark, said people affiliated with the church made threats to the prosecution team. Ruark would not be more specific.

Richard Lawson and other church officials denied that church members threatened anyone, calling the idea "baloney." David L. Spann, an elder at the church, said: "If anyone needed increased protection it is us. We were the ones who were firebombed."

Two days after Joshua Lawson was arrested, someone set the church on fire, causing $85,000 damage. No arrests have been made in that case.

On the witness stand, the girl testified that the sexual relationship started in August 2005, when she was staying at the Lawson home to baby-sit the children while Joshua Lawson's wife was out of town. She said that she and Joshua Lawson watched the movie Hide and Seek, then he invited the girl into his bed.

The affair lasted through November and during that time Joshua Lawson called her to his home 15 to 20 times for sexual encounters, according to the girl's testimony.

But the girl struggled to recall details about the alleged encounters after the August incidents. Yesterday the judge threw out all charges about events after August.

The state's case was further hurt by DNA tests of the Lawsons' mattress, which failed to show that the girl had ever been there.

Stephanie A. Shipley, Lawson's lawyer, said the verdict was expected. "The quickness of the jury verdict is the one thing that surprised me."


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