The victim didn’t show. A recording of the voicemail never came. An officer couldn’t make it.
Alas, the saga of a man accused of intimidating and using obscene language against Delegate Eric Porterfield — who has publicly equated the LGBTQ community with the Ku Klux Klan— continues.
The bench trial of Jonathan George Benfer, originally scheduled for Monday, was postponed to a later date. He faces one charge of making obscene, harassing and threatening communications and another for intimidation of a public official.
Speaking to Kanawha County Magistrate Brent Hall, Benfer’s attorney said he never received the threatening voicemail in discovery that Benfer allegedly left Porterfield.
Likewise, a prosecutor told Hall that the officer who wrote Benfer’s criminal complaint texted her Monday morning to say he was on family medical leave.
Porterfield, a Republican from Mercer County, didn’t attend Monday. He said in an interview he would have attended, but no one informed him of the trial date. Kanawha County Prosecuting Attorney Chuck Miller confirmed as much, saying it was a clerical error.
When Hall opted to delay the trial instead of dismiss the case, Claude Smith, a Charleston attorney representing Benfer, lashed out at Hall for what he described as “foolish” proceedings. He noted Benfer drove to Charleston from Washington D.C.
“We’re jerking somebody around for the benefit of a legislator who doesn’t even feel it necessary to show up for court,” he said. “So if he wants to thumb his nose at your authority, you let him, but I guess we’ll just have to show up for the next hearing.”
Police say Benfer left Porterfield a voicemail Feb. 8, two days after Porterfield used the slur “f----t” in a legislative committee hearing, calling him a coward. The criminal complaint states Benfer said Porterfield is “insulting my people” and contributing to their high rates of suicides.
“I bet you bashed f--s yourself in high school. Now you’re a representative so you’re in the public, so we’re going to bash back,” Benfer said in the voicemail, according to the complaint. “If you want to fight with a f----t, you call me up and I’ll be there tomorrow and we’ll have it out. You bring as many people as you want, and so will I.”
Benfer, through Smith, declined comment. Smith said the voicemail, as detailed in a complaint, does not constitute a true threat.
“It’s America, we’ve got First Amendment rights,” he said to Hall.
Miller said he has not reviewed the Benfer case personally. He said for these types of charges, prosecutors usually use the standard of whether a reasonable person would interpret the message as a threat. However, he declined to comment on the specifics of the voicemails as detailed in the complaint, warning that it might be incomplete information.
Despite criminal charges having been filed in relation to speech against an elected official, Miller said he pays no special attention to cases involving free speech issues or public officials.
“A legislator is no more a victim than someone on the West Side,” Miller said.