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7/29/97 Jury finds Wiley Drake guilty of homeless ministry charges

BUENA PARK, Calif. (BP)–After deliberating 16 hours, a jury found pastor Wiley Drake guilty July 28 of four misdemeanor charges related to his ministry to the homeless.
First Southern Baptist Church of Buena Park, Calif., also was found guilty. The verdict came 14 months after the church and city first locked horns over the issue of helping the helpless.
Disneyland is in Buena Park. Drake was instrumental in 1996 in urging messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in New Orleans to formally threaten a boycott if The Disney Company continued in an “anti-family” direction. This year in Dallas, SBC messengers followed through on a Disney boycott.
Drake and First Southern each were found guilty of city code violations stemming from allowing people to stay on the church property, and unlawfully changing the use of its recreational patio into “a mercantile” because food and clothing for the homeless were stored there and letting the building be used after 10 p.m.
Drake and the church each were found not guilty of a fifth charge — allowing people to drive their vehicles onto church property when said vehicles were then used as sleeping quarters.
Identical charges had been dropped earlier in the trial from defendant Vondel Mumaw, who was First Southern’s secretary when the city first took legal action against Drake and the church. After the prosecution completed the presentation of its case without implicating Mumaw directly, the defense asked charges against her be dropped and Judge Gregg L. Prickett agreed.
Sentencing has been set for Aug. 22.
“Maybe this is part of a larger plan,” defense attorney Jon Alexander said in a telephone conversation after the verdict had been read. “If we would have won today, it would have stopped right here in our little corner of the world,” said Alexander, a Catholic who takes on one major pro bono case a year.
Alexander said he plans to appeal.
“Since we’ve lost this today, we have an opportunity not only to get another trial but to make law, to create law that will affect every person in California who unfortunately undergoes the same pain and misfortune these people have,” the attorney said. “We have an opportunity to create something that will go in the books to help every homeless person in this state.”
From the beginning, Drake said the real issue was that the Disneyland gateway city did not want to admit homeless people were among its residents.
An illustration used by assistant city prosecutor Gregory P. Palmer seemed to support Drake’s contention.
“My father taught me a lesson early in life,” Palmer said to the jury. The Palmer home included two beautiful dogs, but Palmer was drawn to a neighborhood cat. He fed it every night, until his father ordered him to stop.
“My father said once you put milk out for strays, they keep coming back, but if you don’t feed them, they go away,” Palmer said.
Defense attorney Alexander jumped at the opportunity.
“The city of Buena Park believes that the church should tell the homeless to walk on past, as Mr. Palmer said,” Alexander said to the jury. “I do not know if he believes the world is flat and they will eventually fall off. I do not know if he believes they’re the Energizer Bunny and capable of ‘going and going and going.’ I do know they are human beings and if you make them keep walking, they will eventually die of exhaustion or starvation. Or they end up in your town.”
The defense Alexander gave for the church’s response to the homeless dates to Old English common law. This “necessity” law excuses a crime committed during an emergency because the enforcement of the law would be a far greater injustice than was the crime itself.
Alexander likened the homeless seeking shelter at First Southern as akin to people in a sinking boat tying up to a dock that was posted “no trespassing.”
“The prosecution did not object to me running this defense,” Alexander said. “But as soon as I mentioned it, the judge said, ‘I’m not sure if I’ll let you run it.’ Without the necessity defense, yeah, we were guilty of minor code violations.”
The penalty for each charge could be six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Drake said he expects to be offered probation if he agrees to move the homeless off the church lot.
But he’s not willing.
“I’m fighting for the people because of what we’re doing on a daily basis, but there’s also a biblical principal,” the pastor said. “The command of the Bible is to feed and help the poor and the hungry.”
Drake said he’s not willing even to decrease the number of homeless at the church, which July 28 totaled 50 people.
“I don’t know how to cut babies in two,” he said.
Church members have told him the homeless ministry will continue, even if he, the pastor, is in jail, Drake said.
“Our people who work here and volunteer here have said they’ll keep the ministry going with or without me,” Drake said. “As long as they do it with God, that’s all that matters.”
A legal defense fund is being set up to assist with the appeal process, which will take from six months to several years. Alexander said he plans to appeal all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, if necessary.