An abortion protester accused of harassing a volunteer patient escort at an Arkansas clinic was cleared of wrongdoing at trial on Friday.
But Scott Vencil Skarda, a Hazen pastor, was found guilty of violating a no-contact order for sending a Facebook message to his accuser, Karen Musick, after he'd been court-ordered to stay away from her.
Facing a maximum sentence of one year in jail, Skarda, 55, will be sentenced on that charge in March.
Special District Judge Lea Ellen Fowler dismissed the harassment case against Skarda after a two-hour bench trial in Little Rock. The harassment charge also carried up to a year in jail.
The Des Arc man, who heads Family Christian Fellowship Church, told the judge that he felt like he was the real victim in the case.
Fowler ended the proceedings by asking the sides to try to get along, noting that they are forced to interact in a small area outside Little Rock Family Planning Services Clinic on Office Park Drive.
"It's not clear to me who's harassing who. I believe both sides believe very strongly they are right," Fowler said. "I'm going to ask for you to have some respect for each other just as human beings."
Fowler said Skarda and Musick each have a right to follow their deeply held beliefs.
Skarda expresses his views by attempting through prayer and personal appeals to persuade women not to get an abortion while Musick tries to protect those same women, whom she said are already nervous and scared, from what she views as antagonistic behavior by protesters, the judge said.
But Fowler said the testimony from both prosecution and defense witnesses show that during the encounters the 61-year-old Little Rock woman had complained about, Musick had deliberately acted to confront Skarda.
"You clearly were not afraid of him," Fowler said. "You put yourself in a position."
Defense attorney Robert Tellez accused Musick of trying to goad Skarda into doing something that would get protesters barred from the area.
"She baited and antagonized him to get what she wanted ... [which is] none of those [protesters] here," he told the judge. "She harassed and annoyed him."
Both Skarda and Musick testified that there are video recordings that would prove their version of events in the harassment case, but neither prosecution nor defense offered any video evidence. Fowler said she'd have liked to have seen video if it was available.
"I would've welcomed video. It is what it is, and we can see clearly went on out there," she said.
Musick called Skarda an "angry man" and said that the first time they crossed paths, he called her "the face of evil."
Skarda, who described himself as a big and "absolutely loud" man who is passionate about preventing abortions, told the judge that he's never berated any clinic clients because he's focused on connecting with them to keep them from terminating their pregnancies.
"I am loud, but that don't mean I'm bad," said Skarda, a father of two and grandfather of five.
The harassment accusation against Skarda was based on three encounters between him and Musick on two occasions outside the clinic.
Musick complained that on Dec. 4, 2015, he'd roughly grabbed her cellphone out of her hand while she had been video-recording protest efforts before focusing on him. She said she only got the phone back after a security guard intervened.
Then on Feb. 20, she said, Skarda laid hands on her while pulling her umbrella out of her hands, then deliberately breaking it over his knee.
Escorts regularly use umbrellas to shield patients from protesters, she said, adding that she was acting to cover a woman trying to drive into the clinic's parking lot.
In a second encounter that day, Skarda had tried to block her from giving a patient a ride, then beat on her car as she drove away with the woman, Musick said.
Skarda said he was standing on public property when Musick approached him and demanded he move out of her way. But he never touched her car like she said, he told the judge.
Skarda acknowledged in cross examination that if he was subjected to an antagonist who behaved the way he did, that could be disturbing.
"I guess it would bother me," he told the judge.
Skarda admitted that he'd taken Musick's phone and her umbrella in those encounters. But he denied touching her when he did so, telling the judge that he'd been provoked on each occasion.
Musick had pushed her phone very close to his face and refused to back away even after he'd asked several times, Skarda told the judge, describing that kind of behavior as "the most offensive thing in the world."
He said he held the phone for a moment before returning it to her to emphasize his point that she shouldn't be getting that close to people.
Skarda testified that he only took Musick's umbrella because she had been using it to push another woman, one of his parishioner's carrying a 9-month-old baby, away from a car where the woman was trying to talk to the driver.
The woman had stumbled, and he was afraid she'd be pushed over, Skarda told the judge.
There was some contradictory testimony on the pushing allegation, with prosecution witness Chester Robertson telling the judge that Skarda had been the one holding the baby as he pushed himself against the umbrella Musick was holding, then grabbing it and breaking it.
The woman, Jade Bunnell, told the judge that she'd had her son resting on her right hip as she tried to speak to the driver turning into the clinic.
"All of a sudden I felt something pushing me from the left, and it was Karen and her umbrella," the pregnant mother of two said.
She said she almost fell with the child and Skarda came to her rescue. But the episode did not appear to have made a deep impression on her, prosecutors suggested, since she did not include that altercation when she wrote a description of the protest -- her first -- on her Facebook page.
Skarda was convicted of the no-contact order violation in a separate proceeding in which he declined to testify to deny the accusation that he'd sent Musick a Facebook message.
The judge ruled that the message, sent Aug. 26, was a violation of the no-contact order imposed on him after his May arrest on the harassment charge. The order clearly forbids him from any kind of communication with Musick, even by a third-party acting on his behalf, the judge said.
Deputy prosecutor Jacob Franklin said there could be little doubt the message was from Skarda. It appeared to be a personal plea by him to Musick to get her to read a blog post by his wife, Deborah, about the sanctity of life, Franklin said.
Musick said that receiving the message, two days after a court appearance with Skarda, was terrifying.
She said she didn't open the message until prosecutors asked her to because she did not want to take any action that could be construed as encouraging Skarda.
NW News on 12/11/2016