Update: Jurors left the courtroom shortly before noon Wednesday to begin deliberations in the trial of Sooner Tea Party leader Al Gerhart.
A state senator told an Oklahoma County jury Tuesday the hairs went up on the back of his neck last year when he read a threatening email from Sooner Tea Party leader Al Gerhart.
“I know evil exists,” Sen. Cliff Branan testified at Gerhart’s blackmail trial. “It really scared me.”
Gerhart, an Oklahoma City carpenter, faces two felonies because of the email — blackmail and violating the Oklahoma Computer Crimes Act.
“You cannot blackmail under the guise of free speech and political advocacy,” prosecutor Robert McClatchie told jurors in an opening statement Tuesday.
Lead defense attorney Kevin Adams countered the email was constitutionally protected freedom of speech.
“He’s been doing this for years and so has many others,” the defense attorney said.
Jurors will begin deliberating Wednesday.
Four witnesses testified for the prosecution Tuesday and two witnesses testified for the defense.
Defense attorneys rested their case Wednesday morning, deciding not to call any further witnesses. Gerhart did not testify.
In his testimony Tuesday, Branan told the jury he was particularly upset Gerhart threatened to dig into his family and that Gerhart promised “there will be no end to it.”
He said he is married with two teenage children who live at home. He said he has an elderly mother and in-laws who live nearby. He called Gerhart a bully for coming after his family.
“Somebody who would come after somebody’s family has something different in their heart,” he said.
He said he told his son and daughter not to play in the front yard for a while and had Nichols Hills police alerted in hopes police would patrol by his house more often.
He started to explain how the email made him think of the former U.S. representative who was shot in the head in Arizona. The judge did not let him finish after a defense attorney objected.
Gerhart is accused of sending the email to compel the senator to have a bill dealing with a United Nations plan heard and approved in his committee.
Branan, R-Oklahoma City, is chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee.
“He definitely was wanting me to do something I did not want to do,” Branan said.
The state House of Representatives already had passed the bill. Branan said the bill was a solution to a problem that did not exist. He said he already had refused to let four similar Senate bills be heard in the committee.
Branan has been a senator since November 2002. He is currently running for a seat on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission.
Defense attorneys contend Gerhart was charged because the senator wanted to silence a political opponent who was getting others to pressure him.
“You wanted to lock him up for blackmail because you couldn’t handle the pressure of the job you signed up for?” Adams said.
“I can handle the pressure,” Branan replied.
The defense attorney pointed out that Branan had told a state investigator in April 2013 that he wouldn’t use the word “threat” to describe the email.
Instead, the attorney pointed out, the senator told the investigator, “I would say it pushed the edge of the envelope.”
The attorney also noted Branan said to the investigator that Gerhart had “a Rolodex of crazies.”
Gerhart, 55, admits sending the email on March 26, 2013. If convicted of both felonies, Gerhart faces up to 10 years in prison and $15,000 in fines.
Jurors on Tuesday saw both the email and a recording of Gerhart’s April 2, 2013, news conference about it.
In the email, misspelling one word, Gerhart wrote: “Branan, Get that bill heard or I will make sure you regret not doing it. I will make you the laughing stock of the Senate if I don’t hear that this bill will be heard and passed. We will dig into your past, yoru family, your associates and once we start on you there will be no end to it. This is a promise.”
In the recording of the news conference, Gerhart said, “Political pain and embarrassment will be necessary if the citizens expect to regain control of this Senate down here from the state chamber of commerce and special interests.
“The time for ‘nice’ behavior is over with.”
During the news conference, Gerhart also accused Branan of seeking an affair with his executive assistant. Branan told jurors Tuesday the accusation was silly and his assistant, Kathy Townsend, testified she cried a little while after hearing about the claim.
The first defense witness, Kirk Shelley of the Campaign for Liberty, a Virginia-based conservative political group, said he taught confrontational politics to Gerhart and thousands of others involved in grass-roots politics.
Shelley said Jesus endorsed the concept in teaching the parable of the persistent widow. In the parable from Luke, a widow keeps coming to a judge for justice until the judge relents.
The second defense witness, state Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, said legislators must expect to have people look into their backgrounds.
Shortey also said he gets negative emails all the time. After looking at Gerhart’s email to Branan, Shortey said, “That’s the kind of stuff that happens all the time.”