Rutherfordton -- Former Word of Faith Fellowship member Shana Muse was found not guilty of two misdemeanor assault charges on Monday.
Ricky Cooper and Lena Cooper, Muse's brother-in-law and niece, filed separate charges against Muse regarding an argument in March of 2002, mainly as a response to a false imprisonment charge leveled by Muse against the Coopers and two other individuals concerning the same night.
The Coopers, along with Lena Cooper and Carol Smith, who were living in the same home with Muse and several others at the time, were cleared of the false imprisonment charges in April.
Muse stayed in the house during her two and a half years in the church.
Muse had accused the four of preventing her from leaving the Cooper's home and the WOFF by restraining her in a bedroom until Muse relented.
On Monday, Ricky, Lena, and Suzanne Cooper, as well as Muse's two daughters, told their side of the story, with each giving very similar testimonies about the events of that night.
Each testified that on the night in question Muse flew into a rage over an argument about a dress, and ended up attacking Ricky Cooper with a Bible, throwing her daughter Rachel against a door, and spitting in the faces of Lena Cooper and her other daughter Sarah.
Before closing statements were made, Judge Mark Powell said that he was disturbed by the fact that the charges were filed almost two years after the original event, barely meeting the deadline set by the statute of limitations.
Judge Dawn Skerrett made a similar comment before making her ruling in the false imprisonment case in April.
In his closing statement, Assistant District Attorney Ken Suave asked Powell not to factor that concern into his ruling, since the Coopers had filed the charge only after Muse accused the four of false imprisonment.
Suave said that if Muse had not filed those charges, the event would have been "water under the bridge," but that, in the words of Ricky Cooper, the legal response was intended to "get the real story told."
Powell said before his not guilty ruling that he "tended" to believe the state's case, but not beyond a reasonable doubt.
He also said that he disliked the idea that a criminal charge would be filed in order to tell the second half of a story, saying that such a move was not the intention of criminal court.
As the trial opened, Rachel was called by Suave first, and she said that she had asked Muse whether or not she liked a dress Rachel was wearing.
When Muse replied that she did, Rachel sought out the opinion of cousin Lena Cooper, who said that she did not like the dress.
When Muse found out that her daughter had gone to Lena for her opinion, Rachel said that Muse "got really mad" and began yelling at her.
Rachel said that Muse continued screaming and swearing, and that Lena retrieved her mother Suzanne, and Ricky Cooper came up to the room from downstairs.
Each witness testified that when Ricky Cooper entered the room, Muse leapt off the bed and began beating him in the side of the neck with the Bible and then her bare hands.
Rachel testified that "everyone was trying to calm Shana down."
Witnesses testified that after the altercation, Muse apologized for her behavior.
In October 2003, Muse's four children were removed from the home of WOFF ministers Kent and Brooke Covington and placed in the custody of the Rutherford County Department of Social Services.
Muse had left the children with the Covingtons while she sought counseling at a center in Ohio catering to former cult members.
That action occurred after a DSS court action led to a decision by Judge Randy Pool that the church environment was dangerous towards children.
Under cross-examination, Rachel was asked by Muse's attorney Ed Hensley about her relationship with Kent and Brooke Covington, who Rachel now calls her mother and father.
Hensley asked Rachel to confirm that a court order prohibits her from keeping in contact with the Covingtons, and pointed out that Rachel had been sitting in the courtroom with the couple prior to the trial.
"You've been talking to them all day, haven't you?" Hensley asked.
Rachel also said that the Covingtons at least periodically deposit money into her savings account, which she said goes towards college expenses.
Both Rachel and sister Sarah are currently under the custody of the Department of Social Services.
She also said that she considers WOFF co-founder and lead spiritual leader Jane Whaley her grandmother. Whaley was in the courtroom for a portion of the trial.
Lena Cooper testified after Rachel and gave a similar account of that night, saying that Muse had "exploded," a word that would be used by two other witnesses to describe Muse's reaction.
Under cross-examination, Lena Cooper said that she was praying at a voice level "a little above talking" during the struggle.
On the stand Ricky Cooper said that he was alerted to the ruckus by the noise coming from upstairs, and that when he went into the room Muse began striking him with a Bible.
He said that he had sought medical advice after that night, because he had recently had neck surgery and the fight had aggravated his injuries.
"It was like mass chaos there for a few moments," he said.
Hensley pointed out that the warrant issued against Muse by Ricky Cooper mentioned nothing about a Bible being used as a weapon.
Suzanne Cooper provided a similar account of that March night, saying that Muse began "swinging a Bible like a baseball bat."
Cooper also said that Muse was prone to fits of violence and that she worried for her own and her children's safety around Muse.
Hensley asked Cooper if she did indeed fear for the safety and herself and others why no-one had reported the fight to police after the actual event, and why Muse was allowed to remain at the house until September of 2002.
Cooper replied that she and others were simple attempting to help Muse, who said she had drug problems before entering the church.
Muse's daughter Sarah provided another account of that night consistent with the other witnesses, and said that the daughters' relationship with Muse was "strained."
"She has a very short temper and no patience at all," she said.
Sarah also said that the Covingtons had deposited money in her bank account for educational purposes.
The defense called two witnesses, Muse being the first.
On the stand, Muse gave a different account of that night, saying that she was simply trying to leave the room when the door was shut and Ricky Cooper began "blasting me at the top of his lungs."
Blasting, or strong prayer, is one of the controversial practices of the church which involves loud screaming or moaning which the church claims drives out evil forces.
Muse said that while this was going on, Rachel was telling her "please mama, don't leave."
Muse said that in the process of trying to push her way out of the door, that she did spit at Carol Smith.
"It's not right to hold someone against their will who wants to leave," she said.
Muse also testified that she tried to leave the church on several occasions but was prohibited from doing so.
After Muse testified, her sister Tearie Sheffield took the stand to say that after the event Muse had told her the same story she had told to the court.
After Judge Powell's not guilty ruling, Muse said that while she understood Powell's concerns about filing the false imprisonment charges almost two years after the event, she felt that her action could help reveal the "abuses" going on inside the church.
"I hope it will help people know about the abuses going on inside that corporation," Muse said, using a word employed by Hensley during the trial. "I just hope it will help."
Muse is currently living and working in Rutherford County, but she plans to return to Florida where her mother and sister live if she is awarded full custody of her four children.
Muse's two sons are younger than her daughters and are kept in a separate home.