A somber Rev. John Carter enters the living room of his modest apartment in Northeast Washington and greets his wife with a hug and a kiss. Deborah Carter smiles and says it is his style to be warm and expressive. A month after his highly publicized church trial on sexual harassment-related charges, she says, the reverend still sees nothing wrong with showing affection.
Yet, there is something of an I-told-you-so tone to Deborah Carter's voice when she recalls warning her husband years ago that some people might misinterpret his actions as "too free and open."
"John and I both talk with our hands; we touch people when we talk to them," she said, gesturing with her hands during an interview. "I had begun to check myself, but I saw John do it all the time."
In April, five women accused Rev. Carter of sexual harassment while they worked for him or while trying to get jobs with his community-based ministry.
The result was a week-long trial, set up like a civil court proceeding, in a United Methodist church basement in Silver Spring. Deborah Carter was most anxious to know what would be said about her husband. She said that if she became convinced the accusations were true, she might leave him.
Deborah Carter, 34, who married her husband four years ago, is an attractive, highly determined graduate student at Howard University who holds two part-time jobs. She could easily take care of herself.
Thirteen fellow ministers acting as jurors -- 11 of them white and eight of them women -- found Rev. Carter guilty of some of the allegations and ordered that he be suspended for three years. But the trial proved to be such a peculiar quasi-judicial affair, replete with unusual deviations from standard judisprudence, that Deborah Carter walked away feeling that justice had not been served.
After hearing the testimony of the women -- three of whom she knew personally -- against her husband and then not being allowed to testify except as a character witness on her husband's behalf, Deborah Carter said she wanted to change the sign on the church basement that read "church trial."
"I wanted to scratch out 'trial' to make it read 'lynching,' " she fumed.
In her mind, the motives of the women were suspect because, she said, during the period in which Rev. Carter was allegedly harassing them, two of the women were calling him at home "at least once a week to chitchat."
The trial verdict, which is being appealed, had a devestating impact on the Carter family, and Deborah Carter has had to rally hard to keep up her own spirits as well as those of her husband. In recounting and sifting through the details of the trauma, Deborah Carter, not surprisingly, tends to discount much of the charges brought against her husband while underscoring the numerous flaws in the proceedings.
One would have to concede, even under the most charitable interpretation of the evidence, that Rev. Carter showed poor judgment in his dealings with church personnel. Yet it is also true that Rev. Carter was up against immense odds in trying to clear his reputation during the bizarre church proceedings.
The presiding bishop, William Boyd Grove, a white, 56-year-old West Virginian, indicated early on his frustration with defense objections that he did not understand. "I'm not a judge. I'm a preacher," he said.
Hired lawyers guided the two preachers who represented the defense and prosecution, but this arrangement resulted in confusion.
"Sometimes we didn't know what we were doing," recalled the Rev. Irvin Lockman, who argued for Rev. Carter with assistance from Clayton Smith, a former federal civil rights lawyer.
In the end, the jurors could not agree on a definition of "immorality," the most serious charge against Rev. Carter. So he was acquitted of that one. But they did find him guilty of "disobeying church law."
"People come up to me at school and say, 'I know it's tough on you -- but we are behind you,' " Deborah Carter said. "I tell them that the only tough part is the loss of John's [$21,000-a-year] salary."
Within the United Methodist Church, the purpose of a trial is to achieve reconciliation -- unlike civil court, where the plaintiff tries to extract a pound of flesh. By using a loose interpretation of civil court procedure as a guide for a church trial, the results were not surprising.
But Deborah Carter's reaction was.
"We're picking up the pieces and going on with our lives," she said. "I intend to stand by my man.