'Birther' sentenced to 3 years in McMinn County extortion, perjury case

photo Van Irion, attorney for former U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Walter Frances Fitzpatrick III, left, stands with supporters outside of the McMinn County Courthouse after Fitzpatrick was sentenced to three years in prison on extortion and perjury charges stemming from a June jury conviction in Athens, Tenn.

ATHENS, Tenn. - A series of judicial battles that started in 2010 with Walter F. Fitzpatrick's attempt to have President Obama indicted over the "birther" issue came to a close Tuesday when the retired Navy commander was led off to prison in handcuffs.

Fitzpatrick lost his latest courtroom battle in a heartfelt defense of what he saw as his duty to defend the Constitution, but even in defeat he left the courtroom to cheers and applause from supporters.

Judge John Kerry Blackwood sentenced Fitzpatrick to three years in prison on charges of extortion and perjury related to repeated petitions to the McMinn County grand jury between 2011 and 2014.

In pronouncing the sentence, Blackwood minced no words, calling Fitzpatrick a "moral coward" and his accusations of constitutional impropriety "ludicrous."

Blackwood said that in his repeated approaches to the grand jury, Fitzpatrick "never produced one iota of evidence," and he decried the veteran's constitutional basis for his actions.

"It's incomprehensible to me that his constitutional rights allow him to trample on the constitutional rights of others," Blackwood said.

On four occasions between 2011 and 2014, Fitzpatrick approached the McMinn County grand jury calling for investigations. Jurors, headed by grand jury foreman Jeff Cunningham, declined each time.

Cunningham later served as a primary witness in Fitzpatrick's June trial.

According to the Daily Post-Athenian, Cunningham testified that Fitzpatrick's complaints brought to the grand jury related to "criminal complaints of crimes against the public integrity," named local judicial figures and claimed state and federal fraud related to "the election of Barack Obama."

Subsequent petitions included how his complaints were handled, grand jury powers and formation, and calls for the arrest of several local public figures, including Cunningham, on a variety of charges.

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Fitzpatrick was found guilty in the day-and-a-half trial.

On Tuesday, Blackwood said, "All he can say is that the grand jury foreperson is not being chosen properly. So what? So what?"

But Fitzpatrick's supporters were undeterred.

As Fitzpatrick was led out of the courtroom, supporters who filled about half the gallery called out, "We love you Walt," to which he replied, "Thank you, folks."

Outside the McMinn County Courthouse on Tuesday, Fitzpatrick supporters J.W. Smith and David Junah called the sentence a "travesty of justice."

"It was plain in the courtroom that there were several laws broken by the grand jury foreman," Smith said. "But they just swept that under the rug."

Smith, of Hartford, Tenn., and Junah, of Jonesboro, Tenn., accuse the grand juries in McMinn and Monroe, and elsewhere, of forming their panels unlawfully, and they also say the judicial officials involved in those cases are "all soiled" by their decisions to convict and sentence Fitzpatrick.

Arguably Fitzpatrick's most notable judicial conflict concerned his efforts in Monroe County in April 2010 to make a citizen's arrest of the grand jury foreman because of a foreman selection process that Fitzpatrick said was a violation of law.

Fitzpatrick's attempt to make a citizen's arrest arose from his effort to convince the grand jury to indict the president because, Fitzpatrick contended, Obama was not a natural-born U.S. citizen.

Since then, Fitzpatrick has remained embroiled in a battle with judicial officials.

Van Irion, Fitzpatrick's lawyer, said his sentence is ripe for appeal and that he would be filing one.

Irion, from Knoxville, said he was disturbed by Blackwood's comments about constitutional rights.

Fitzpatrick could be eligible for release after he serves 30 percent of the three-year sentence, or a little less than a year. That sentence is concurrent in McMinn on the counts of extortion and perjury, and it will run consecutive to a previous sentence in Monroe County, according to court officials and Irion.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or twitter.com/BenBenton or www.facebook.com/ben.benton1 or 423-757-6569.