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February 19, 2014

Jury finds Smeltz not guilty

Ada —  A Pontotoc County District Court jury found former Ada firefighter and City Council candidate Jason Smeltz not guilty of a charge of putting another person in fear of physical harm or death with a persistent Facebook campaign of often profanity-laced posts.

 Those posts followed an altercation with Ada police officer Brad Rhoads last April 24 after Rhoads arrested Smeltz's wife Laura for public intoxication.

  After the jury considered two days of testimony detailing the 2013 incident with video evidence,  witness testimony and a war of words between the attorneys, the jury took little more than an hour to return with the not-guilty verdict.

Smeltz was charged with putting another person in fear of physical harm or death. A guilty verdict would have brought 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 pleaded not guilty.

  Pontotoc County District Judge Tom Landrith told the jury it could consider two possibilities in reaching a verdict. If jurors did not agree that Smeltz was guilty they could also consider a lesser charge concerning whether the defendant was guilty of a campaign of annoying and harassing another person.

  Finally, he told them if Smeltz didn't meet the criteria for a guilty verdict they had to find him not-guilty.

  The jury found in Smeltz’s favor on both standards set forth. In doing so, the fired city firefighter claimed a clear-cut victory he had been trying to achieve against the city and the police department for nearly a year.

 What happened in the seconds after the verdict was read was a thundering sound of silence, the crowd having been admonished by Landrith ahead of time.

  "I don't want to see any sign of emotion, period," the judge said, and the crowd obeyed.

 Nor until Landrith had dismissed the jurors did pent up emotions begin to explode. Smeltz's supporters greeted him at the front of the courtroom with hugs and kisses, tears and handshakes.

  Asked what he thought won it for him, a red-faced, red-eyed Smeltz said, "Warren Gotcher, no question."

 The highly regarded defense attorney had to overcome a barrage of Facebook exhibits put into evidence by Assistant District Attorney Jim Tillison.

 Getting the jurors to accept the Facebook posts as figurative and not literal speech was crucial for Gotcher, just as getting the jury to take them literally, or at least in their totality, was the job of Tillison.

  In the end, the jury decided on the figurative side.

  Gotcher stopped by the Smeltz celebration just long enough to give Smeltz a piece of paper and to say to him, "You deserved it."

  Gotcher had, in effect, put the police department on trial for its handling of Laura Smeltz’s public intoxication arrest.

  Smeltz had argued vehemently throughout that his wife was not drunk the night she was arrested. He said she and a friend had been out to dinner that night and had just a couple of drinks.

  When Laura Smeltz took the stand Wednesday, Tillison got her to admit she had the same amount of alcohol as her friend, who was arrested after blowing a .081.

 Laura Smeltz blew a .042, well below the minimum for a DUI charge.

 With six female jurors watching and six men, Smeltz desribed how even though she wasn't intoxicated, she was forced to strip, bend over and grab her ankles for the female jail official.

 Gotcher weaved such evidence into his closing remarks, casting the police department as officers out of control.

 Even with a strong closing by Tillison who emphasized the totality of Smeltz's Facebook campaign and its effect on arresting officer Rhoads’ life, he was unable to persuade jurors that Rhoads, who began sleeping with two loaded weapons, was in fear of his life.

  When Smeltz was asked if the city council campaign would not become top priority, he hesitated just slightly. "It's kind of been pushed to the back burner because of all this," Smeltz said. He also said he has an arbitration meeting coming up  with Lance Hanes, indicating his next priority could be trying to get his job back.

 "If that happens, I'd have to drop out of the city council race because I would again be a city employee."  

  Then he thought a minute and said he hadn't really made up his mind. Asked about his Facebook campaign, Smeltz said he would probably move forward now, indicating one campaign was over, "water under the bridge," with another possibly coming up, depending on arbitration.

 Asked how he was going to celebrate Wednesday night with friends and family, Smeltz said, "I'm going to go home and go to bed. I've never been so exhausted."

Finally, Smeltz's aunt, Pat Garza, reached out to her hug nephew, telling him he was a good man, but, "Next time you get involved in something like this, please clean up your mouth a little."

 Smeltz promised her he'd do better.

 Calls from the Ada News for comment from Tillison were not returned before deadline.

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