WAYNESVILLE, Mo. -- It took a jury just 18 minutes on Thursday to acquit a church school official of three felony child abuse charges for sending boys into a manure pit as discipline.
Prosecutors said their legal setback would figure in whether they pursue other pending abuse cases against staffers at Heartland Christian Academy in northeast Missouri.
Charles Robert Patchin, 34, wiped away tears and hugged family and friends after the verdict was read in Pulaski County Circuit Court.
He is the grandson of Charles N. Sharpe, a Kansas City insurance millionaire who founded Heartland in 1995 after declaring God told him to establish a place for troubled young people.
Heartland combines Christian school lessons with stern discipline. Prosecutors said Patchin's directions that misbehaving boys wade into a manure pit at Heartland's dairy farm went too far, becoming "cruel and inhuman punishment."
Patchin had faced up to 21 years in state prison and fines totaling up to $15,000 if convicted of the three charges.
Jurors said after the trial ended that the manure pit punishment, while distasteful, didn't warrant such severe charges or potential penalties.
"We discussed it, and we felt the state didn't prove to the extent necessary to convict him," said jury foreman Roger Beam, 31, of Dixon.
Patchin shook hands with his attorneys after the verdict was read, while Sharpe shot a thumbs-up to other Heartland supporters watching in the courtroom.
"I am just relieved at the moment, just glad to get this behind us," Patchin said. "... The regret that I have is that it came to this."
Standing next to his grandson, Sharpe said: "We thank God that we have this opportunity to go free."
Two boys testifying for the prosecution said they exaggerated their initial claims, acknowledging that the manure was not as deep as they first claimed and that they had not entered the pit as often as they originally told investigators.
A third boy, testifying for the defense, also minimized the experience. That boy and one who testified for prosecutors are still students at Heartland.
Juror Carol Thompson, 66, of Devils Elbow, said prosecution witnesses didn't help the state's case.
Asked whether she thinks the state should proceed with charges against other Heartland employees, Thompson shrugged and said, "I don't think there would be any chance" of convicting them.
Lewis County Prosecutor Jules DeCoster said no decision has been made about whether to proceed with other prosecutions, but that he would weigh whether the charges should be altered.
"We'd be very foolish, and we wouldn't be doing our jobs, if we didn't go back and look at it again," DeCoster said. Four other people are charged in manure pit incidents at Heartland, and DeCoster said Patchin's was the "weakest" of the state's cases.
In a separate case, four others are accused of striking students. A father pleaded guilty in November to felony child abuse in that case in connection with the man's 16-year-old son reportedly receiving dozens of strikes on his buttocks and back with a wooden paddle while at Heartland.
Corporal punishment -- including paddling -- is legal in Missouri so long as it is deemed reasonable. Heartland said it administers "swats" as part of its discipline.
In closing arguments Thursday morning, Patchin attorney Robert Haar reminded jurors that the boys acknowledged exaggerating their claims about the manure pit work.
Haar told jurors there is "no evidence of physical, psychological or emotional problems" from the manure pit work, which he called "a chore that has gone on for centuries."
Patchin had testified that the boys sent to the manure pits did not wear protective clothing.
Assistant Attorney General Tim Anderson told jurors that sending children into the manure pits was not discipline, and that it was degrading, cruel and inhuman.
"What can you do to a child that is more dehumanizing than to put them into a pit of waste?" Anderson said. "... The message we are sending by that is, 'The value of that child is waste."'
In combative cross-examination on Wednesday, Patchin declared he still thinks the manure pit punishment is "fine," and that it was his idea.
But Patchin acknowledged that hand-shoveling of manure at Heartland's massive dairy operation served no useful purpose, because the waste from 3,000 cattle was so abundant. Dairy employees usually used heavy equipment to handle the manure.
Heartland sits in a remote area about 150 miles north of St. Louis. The trial was moved to Pulaski County, in south-central Missouri and about 150 miles away from the school, because the defense wanted another judge.