Va. pastor guilty in same-sex union custody case

August 14, 2012 - 7:47 PM
Civil Union Custody Dispute

Supporters of Rev. Kenneth Miller stand outside federal court in Burlington, Vt., Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012. The pastor from Virginia was convicted of helping a woman flee the country three years ago, when she was on the brink of having to turn custody of her young daughter over to the woman who was once her partner in a Vermont civil union. The jury issued its verdict against the Rev. Kenneth Miller after several hours of deliberations in the case, which has drawn broad attention because of the legal and religious questions it raised about same-sex unions and child custody, and because the mother and daughter remain at large. (AP Photo/Wilson Ring)

BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — A pastor from Virginia was convicted Tuesday of helping a woman flee the country three years ago, when she was on the brink of having to turn custody of her young daughter over to the woman who was once her partner in a Vermont civil union.

The jury issued its verdict against the Rev. Kenneth Miller after several hours of deliberations in the case, which has drawn broad attention because of the legal and religious questions it raised about same-sex unions and child custody, and because the whereabouts of mother and daughter remain unknown.

Miller, 46, a Mennonite from Stuarts Draft, Va., was charged with aiding in international kidnapping for helping Lisa Miller and her daughter, Isabella, leave the country in September 2009, a month after a judge indicated he would turn custody of the girl over to Janet Jenkins, of Fair Haven, Vt., if she continued to defy a series of visitation orders.

Kenneth and Lisa Miller are not related. Lisa and Isabella, now 10 years old, were last known to be in Nicaragua.

As the jury was deliberating, Jenkins filed a lawsuit against both Millers and other people associated with the case, seeking unspecified monetary damages.

Kenneth Miller showed no emotion as the verdict was read and will remain free pending sentencing, although he was ordered to surrender his passport. After the verdict, his supporters walked out of the Burlington courthouse, lined up across the street and began singing hymns.

"I am willing to accept the consequences of my actions," said Miller, who could spend three years in prison. "I am at peace with God. I am peace with my conscience and I give it over to God, and at the same time I respect the decision of the court."

He said an appeal would be up to his attorneys, who left the courthouse shortly after the verdict was read.

Jenkins was not in court at the time, but her attorney said she is pleased that Kenneth Miller was being held accountable.

"She hopes that the verdict will send a message to those who continue to aid and abet Lisa Miller in Nicaragua," said attorney Sarah Star. "Her greatest hope is that the government's efforts will lead to Isabella's safe return to Vermont."

During three days of testimony, prosecutors used cellphone records and sometimes-reluctant witnesses to lay out a broad network overseen by Kenneth Miller that helped Lisa and Isabella travel first to Canada and then Nicaragua.

Prosecutors said Kenneth Miller arranged for another person to drive the two from Virginia to Buffalo, N.Y., where they crossed into Canada and were picked up by an Ontario Mennonite who took them to an airport. After they arrived in Nicaragua, prosecutors said, the two were cared for by American Mennonites who felt they needed to protect Isabella from what they considered a sinful lesbian lifestyle.

The U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Nicaragua. The country is not a signer of the 1980 Hague convention on international child abductions, which is designed to return children illegally taken from member countries.

Lisa Miller and Jenkins entered into a civil union in Vermont in 2000, shortly after the state became the first to legally recognize same-sex relationships. Miller conceived the child through artificial insemination, and both acted as parents.

Lisa Miller later became an evangelical Christian and renounced her homosexuality. A child-custody case went to Vermont family court in 2004, after the couple dissolved the civil union. Lisa Miller, who moved to Lynchburg, Va., was given primary custody of Isabella, with Jenkins given visitation rights.

Lisa Miller appealed the case for years, but ultimately the courts in Virginia and Vermont determined the case would be bound by the Vermont family court order. After defying visitation orders, Miller became a fugitive in 2009 when she disappeared with Isabella.

Charges were dropped in October against an American Mennonite missionary living in Nicaragua, Timothy Miller, who is not related to the other Millers. Prosecutors said he helped Lisa Miller reach Central America; he cooperated in the case against Kenneth Miller.

Timothy Miller said in videotaped testimony that he knew Lisa Miller was fleeing the U.S. because of the custody battle but believed at the time that she had full custody of Isabella. He said he picked the mother and child up when they arrived in Managua and arranged a place for them to live in Nicaragua.

"I did not believe it was a crime I had committed," said Timothy Miller, who is not related to the other Millers.

In brief but emotional testimony, Jenkins gave an overview of her relationship with Lisa Miller and a history of some of her visits with Isabella between the time the two split up in 2003 and Lisa Miller and the girl left the country Sept. 22, 2009.

Jenkins last saw Isabella in January 2009 and was looking forward to a late September visit.

"I was going to go to Lynchburg and pick my daughter up for the weekend," said Jenkins, who runs a day-care business. But when she arrived to pick up Isabella, no one was home.