Word of Faith Fellowship leader tries to get case moved out of Rutherford County

Word of Faith Fellowship member Brooke Covington walks into Rutherford County court on May 19, 2017. She faces assault and kidnapping charges. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

One of four people accused of beating a man because of his sexual orientation appeared in Rutherford County Court on Friday.

Word of Faith Fellowship member Brooke Covington faces assault and kidnapping charges in connection with the incident, although she made no comments about the case in court nor on her way out of the courthouse.

Friday, defense attorney David Teddy called Alan Jackson, of Bivarus Inc. The defense paid Bivarus $6,000 for a survey to gauge community reaction to stories about Word of Faith Fellowship. Jackson testified the phone survey was a minimum of eight questions and, depending on a person's answers, it could be more. The surveyor asked to speak to the youngest male member of the household over the age of 18.

Officials said of the 5,492 calls made, only 386 people agreed to participate in the survey.

The survey asked questions that included "Have you heard of the case" after giving the person a brief description.

They said 71.2 percent of those who agreed to be surveyed claimed they had heard of the case. Another question was how the person had heard about the case, where they were getting their information. Some 33.5 percent of those said the newspaper, 20.3 percent said TV and 18 percent claimed the internet.

When asked if they had an opinion about the case, 52.7 percent said they had formed an opinion. And 49 percent of those surveyed believed the defendant was guilty, compared to 33.8 percent who claimed the defendant was probably guilty.

The state pointed out, then, according to Bivarus' survey results 69 percent had not either heard of the case or didn't have an opinion. Assistant District Attorney Garland Byers urged Judge Gary Gavenus, because of those numbers, to at least try to seat a jury in Rutherford County.

The state filed its own motion, asking that if the judge was inclined to grant the defense's motion that he instead consider a change in voir dire or to bring in a jury from another county to hear the case in Rutherford County.

Byers told the court he found out about the phone survey after getting a call from the SBI. Someone who had been called had reached out to them, questioning them about the survey.

Gavenus said he would review the large three-ring binder of comments and take all motions under advisement.

The judge also issued a strong warning concerning the phone survey. He asked if Bivarus had consulted the Clerk of Court's jury summons that had gone out the day before the phone survey started. Jackson claimed they had not, nor had they made the state or courts aware of the survey process. The judge said if he decided to deny the change of venue motion and to try to seat a jury in Rutherford County and if one potential jury remarked they'd been contacted about the survey, there would be "serious consequences."

District Attorney Ted Bell said he plans for the case to go forward on May 30 if the judge agrees to jury selection in Rutherford County. If he agrees to bringing in an out of county jury, the trial could be delayed two months, and it's uncertain when the case could go forward if the judge decides to move it out of the county.

RELATED | New investigation into abuse at Word of Faith Fellowship

A grand jury indicted Covington in Rutherford County in 2015, and she was released on bond. She and four other church members are accused of beating Matthew Fenner, a former member of the church, because he's gay.

RELATED | Former members of Word of Faith Fellowship hold community meeting.

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