Closing arguments due in civil suit against funeral protesters

October 30, 2007|By Matthew Dolan | Matthew Dolan,Sun reporter

A federal jury in Baltimore is expected to hear closing arguments this morning in the first-in-the-nation lawsuit against a Kansas church accused of invading the privacy of a family mourning the death of their son killed in Iraq.

The civil trial, now a week old, has pitted a grieving father of a 20-year-old Marine against members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who Albert Snyder says exacerbated his pain and suffering by protesting at his son's March 2006 funeral with anti-gay slogans.

Yesterday's final witnesses included two psychological experts who presented contrasting opinions on the impact of the protests of the Westboro Baptist Church members on the family of Lance Cpl. Matthew A. Snyder.

Snyder, a 2003 Westminster High School graduate, died in a vehicle accident in Anbar province. He had been in Iraq less than a month.

Kenneth J. Doka, a professor of gerontology at the College of New Rochelle, testified that the church members' picketing likely made it more difficult for the family to grieve properly.

The untimely death of a young man at war would already be an extremely sorrowful event for a father to endure, according to Doka, who testified for the plaintiff, Albert Snyder. But the church's protest at the funeral only made the loss more difficult, said Doka, a recognized expert on how people survive the loss of loved ones.

According to his attorneys, Snyder has suffered complications from diabetes since the protests. He has maintained that church members violated his right to privacy when they camped out and waved signs including "Thank God for dead soldiers" near his funeral motorcade.

But an expert for the defense testified that the onset of Snyder's depression came before his son's death. And it was that tragic loss - and not the church's anti-homosexual protests - that is principally responsible for his ailments, according to Dr. Neil Blumberg, a forensic psychiatrist from Timonium.

"In the big scheme of things, it was a distraction," Blumberg told jurors. " ... The primary source of [his] depression is the loss."

Blumberg said that Snyder's continued focus on the church protesters "makes him feel less helpless" after losing his son.

In opening arguments last week, one of the defendants, Shirley Phelps-Roper, a Westboro member and attorney who is representing herself in the case, told jurors that she and her fellow protesters remained about 1,000 feet away from the funeral and never did anything to disrupt the service.

The congregation is known around the country for holding regular protests at funerals, political rallies and other public forums across the country to voice opposition to the inclusion of homosexuals in the military.

U.S. District Judge Richard D. Bennett earlier ruled that church members did not defame Snyder or his family by implying that he was gay or that he was raised by adulterers because his parents divorced. Nor did the church members invade the family's privacy, the judge ruled, because their anti-gay and anti-divorce accusations were based on a general expression of the church members' fundamentalist beliefs.

But the judge also left it to jurors to decide this week whether Westboro Baptist Church is liable for an intentional infliction of emotional distress based on the message from its members' signs. If jurors decide the church or its members are legally liable, lawyers will then be able to argue over what kind of damages should be awarded to Albert Snyder.

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