Art Lawler Staff Writer email@example.com
The first day in the trial of former Ada firefighter and current City Council candidate Jason Smeltz quickly turned into a language battle among attorneys at Pontotoc County Courthouse Tuesday.
When is a threat a threat and when is colorful, figurative language being used to express one's anger?
The job of convincing jurors of the latter fell to to McAlester defense attorney Warren Gotcher.
Assistant District Attorney Jim Tillson spent part of the afternoon entering exhibit after exhibit of Facebook posts attributed to Smeltz lashing out against certain Ada police officers. Tillson showed complete video of the April 2013 night Smeltz found his wife being tested for intoxication and wound up getting himself arrested on two different occasions shortly after that night.
Smeltz is charged with putting another person in fear of physical harm or death. A guilty verdict can bring a sentence of not more than 10 years in prison and a fine of not less than $5,000 nor more than $100,000, according to the District Attorney’s Office.
Smeltz has pled not guilty. He also filed to run for the Ada City Council on the final day of filing last week.
Jury selection began at 8:30 a.m. Tuesday and by 11 a.m. the two attorneys were making their opening arguments. Tillson led off for the state by showing the jury a rapid-fire series of exhibits to demonstrate what he called "threats" made by Smeltz over a prolonged period of time, threats that caused Ada Police Officer Brad Rhoads to fear for his life.
Tillson promised the jury he would deliver all the evidence they would need to convict Smeltz of the charge against him.
Tillson told the jury Rhoads was frightened enough over Smeltz’s statements to begin taking a rifle and a pistol to bed with him at night, out of fear for his life.
Gotcher ridiculed the "so-called threats" by grilling Rhoads on the witness stand.
"Did he ever come to your house?" Gotcher asked. "Has he ever done anything but express his opinion that you're an incompetent police officer who he's going to try to get fired?"
Rhoads explained that Smeltz's statements in their totality were enough to convince him that Smeltz was a danger.
Rhoads and Smeltz, who knew each other casually as city employees but were never friends, had a verbal altercation on the night of April 24, 2013.
Smeltz has said repeatedly that his wife was not drunk but was taken to jail, given sobriety tests, which she passed from a legal standpoint.
Captain Jason Potter, who was a sergeant at the time, testified that he felt Mrs. Smeltz was drunk that night and told that to her husband when Smetlz asked why she was being arrested.
Laura Elizabeth Smeltz, who was not arrested for DUI, was arrested for public intoxication because, in the judgment of Rhoads and Potter, she "swayed" once while taking steps while following Rhoads’ instructions on a field sobriety test.
Gotcher zeroed in on both arresting officers, asking why they would arrest a woman the video clearly showed was cooperative during the tests.
The officers and Tillson explained that there are no sobriety tests required to arrest a person for public intoxication.
The officers said it is up to them to make a judgment on when a person is impaired.
It appears the groundwork was laid here to test the fairness of using officer's subjective opinions in making public intoxication arrests.
Gotcher suggested in the front of the jury that if Mrs. Smeltz had been tested at .05, she could have driven home. That would have meant she hadn't reached the level of .08, which is necessary for a DUI test to prove public intoxication.
The officers quickly countered that a PIO arrest is something entirely separate from a DUI.
As the first day wound down, it appeared that Gotcher will be holding up the policies of the Ada Police Department, especially its protocol for making public intoxication arrests.
It was this arrest that sent Smeltz off on a long Facebook crusade against APD last year, particularly against Rhoads and Potter.
Smeltz has argued that Ada police have too much power and that they arrested his wife unjustly.
Gotcher may or may not try to drive that home, but even if he does, he's faced with a series of Facebook posts written by Smeltz that may eventually either prove to be threatening or hot air to the jury.
Jurors will have to determine whether "I'll have your head" means lopping it off, or "having your job."
Whether "I don't know your address but I will know it,'" is a threat or more hot air.
During Rhoads’ testimony, he and Smeltz were no more than six feet away from each other, but both stared straight ahead for the most part.