Vermont jury finds Mennonite minister guilty of aiding kidnapping
BURLINGTON, Vermont |
BURLINGTON, Vermont (Reuters) - A Mennonite minister was found guilty on Tuesday of aiding a kidnapping by helping a woman flee to Nicaragua with her daughter to evade court orders giving visitation rights to her former lesbian partner.
The case drew widespread attention as gay rights groups and evangelical Christian groups took opposing sides in the legal battle between the two women over Isabella Miller-Jenkins, now 10.
Federal prosecutors say Kenneth Miller of Stuarts Draft, Virginia, helped orchestrate Lisa Miller's flight to Canada and Nicaragua in 2009 with her daughter out of Christian solidarity with her decision to reject homosexuality and her former partner. The two Millers are not related.
The jury deliberated only a few hours before finding Kenneth Miller guilty. He faces the possibility of three years in prison. No sentencing date was set.
Miller showed no reaction as the verdict was announced but spoke to reporters afterward outside the federal courthouse.
"We are of course disappointed but with the grace of God and by his help, we will bear the consequences," he said.
Outside the courthouse were more than 100 Mennonites, who attended the court proceedings in support of Kenneth Miller. Women were wearing bonnets and men dressed in high collared shirts sang hymns, led by an older, bearded man in suspenders.
Lisa Miller took the girl to Central America after denouncing homosexuality and losing a series of family court battles in Vermont with her former partner, Janet Jenkins.
Jenkins and Miller were joined in a civil union in Vermont in 2000 and, using in vitro fertilization, Miller gave birth to Isabella two years later.
Miller filed to dissolve the union in 2003. She got custody of Isabella but a Vermont court gave Jenkins visitation rights.
Miller increasingly embraced conservative Christian ideals and renounced homosexuality.
Joshua Autrey, a lawyer for Kenneth Miller, did not dispute evidence about his client's role in organizing Lisa Miller's secretive flight days before a court-ordered visitation with Jenkins.
Instead, the defense attorney offered a nuanced legal argument that his client did not know about her intent to violate Jenkins' visitation rights. The attorney said Kenneth Miller helped her leave the country ahead of an anticipated family court ruling granting full custody to Jenkins.
An Amish-Mennonite pastor who worked in his family's garden-supply business, Kenneth Miller contacted Mennonites to drive Lisa Miller and Isabella to an airport in Canada in 2009 and pick her up in Nicaragua where the group runs a mission, according to court documents.
Lisa Miller was indicted on international kidnapping charges in 2010 but federal agents have been unable to locate her or Isabella. Nicaragua does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.
"I think it was an important case because we had a situation where somebody had helped another parent take a child from the United States," U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin said after the verdict.
"The fact that both parents happened to be same gendered was immaterial," Coffin said.
Miller's defense lawyer said his client may appeal the verdict, based in part on the decision to try the case in Vermont rather than Virginia, where Lisa and Isabella lived.
(Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Bill Trott)
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