They dispute whether videotapes showing Robert S. Minton hitting a Scientologist with a picket sign prove battery.
Four video cameras were rolling the night Robert S. Minton was charged for striking a Church of Scientology staffer with his picket sign.
Three tapes show the staffer, Richard W. Howd, following Minton with one of the cameras, often coming within 2 feet of Minton's face.
They show Minton telling Scientologists they are all complicit in the death of Lisa McPherson, the 36-year-old Scientologist who died in 1995 while in the church's care.
And each tape ends the same way: A frustrated Minton calls police on his cell phone. He crosses a side street, walking away from Scientology's Fort Harrison Hotel in downtown Clearwater. In an instant, he yells at Howd to stop following him and wheels around, pointing his picket sign in Howd's direction.
Howd's face collides hard with the edge of the sign, his head snapping back as he spins to the sidewalk.
Although no one disputed this chain of events, attorneys in Minton's trial Monday couldn't have disagreed more on how a jury should interpret them.
Minton, a New England millionaire who is financing a campaign to reform Scientology, is being tried on a charge of misdemeanor battery in the Oct. 31, 1999, incident.
"Mr. Minton is the one that lost his cool," Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Bill Tyson said in his opening statement to the jury of four women and two men. "Mr. Minton is the one who was provoking people that night."
But Minton's attorney, Denis de Vlaming, said Minton was the victim of a Scientology plan to choreograph the incident and discredit his client. De Vlaming said church staffers followed Minton that day after he arrived at Tampa International Airport and, later, as he arrived to check in at the Belleview Biltmore Resort Hotel and Spa in Belleair.
De Vlaming linked those actions to a 1967 Scientology directive known as "Fair Game." Written by church founder L. Ron Hubbard, it stated that an enemy of Scientology "may be deprived of property or injured by any means by any Scientologist" and "may be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed."
Fair Game was canceled the following year, but de Vlaming pointed to wording in the cancellation notice that, he said, shows that its substance is still in force.
Church officials say Fair Game has been grossly misinterpreted by critics.
"It is the manner in which they silence critics," de Vlaming said. Minton "had an absolute right to prevent them from getting into his face any further."
De Vlaming told jurors that Howd wanted to get hit in the same way a basketball player sacrifices his body and commits a foul to block an opponent from scoring.
The incident also was caught on tape by a church security camera and another church staffer.
Tyson, the prosecutor, argued that Howd never said a word to Minton and that three other Scientologists who were flanking Minton that night simply told him to go home.
Tyson also noted it was 10:30 on a Sunday night, when few people were around to see Minton's impromptu picket.
Howd told jurors he taped Minton closely so the church would have a full record of what he said and did.
He also said he did it to deter Minton, whose anti-Scientology organization, the Lisa McPherson Trust, is based in Clearwater.
Under questioning from de Vlaming, Howd said he caught up with Minton after "somebody called in" to tip him off. He said Minton's language on Internet postings sounded threatening and "I wanted to know where he was staying for the safety and security of staff and parishioners."
De Vlaming also questioned Howd's reaction to being hit by the sign, which consisted of two foam posters held together with small metal clips.
At 5 feet 11 and 210 pounds, Howd, 34, fell after the edge of the sign and one of the clips hit him near the left eye, causing a small cut and a scratch.
He lay on the sidewalk motionless, his arms above his head and his eyes closed, until an ambulance arrived and took him to Morton Plant Hospital for X-rays. Howd said he felt back pain and didn't want to take chances.
According to the videos, other Scientologists on the scene said nothing to Howd after the incident, standing around him in near silence.
De Vlaming took that as evidence the incident was choreographed. But Howd noted that Scientologists believe in staying silent around an injured person, lest something they say stirs up trouble in the "reactive" or subconscious mind.
The trial is expected to end today.