RALEIGH — Sitting in federal court watching prosecutors paint former CIA contract worker David Passaro as a brutally violent interrogator, his fellow Harnett County church parishioners doubt it.
The dozen or so members of Flat Branch Presbyterian Church don't see a clever, savage man who prosecutors say beat Afghan detainee Abdul Wali over two days in June, 2003 until he could no longer walk, stand, use the bathroom or, in the end, survive.
They see cheerful Dave Passaro, the eternal optimist. They see Dave, their dear and devoted Christian brother, who leads Bible study in jail. They see a member of the church's Care Committee who called, wrote, visited and prayed for parishioners in need.
Not David the criminal, charged with four felony crimes that could put him in prison for 40 years if convicted. But Dave the choir boy.
"He sang in the choir and did a lot of wonderful things in the church," said Neil Bain of Lillington, the church's pastor, who attended court during the first week of the trial last week. "He showed a lot of concern for the people there. He's a good singer. We miss him."
"I find it hard to believe from his character ... that it could be true. I find it hard to believe that he would be so different in that situation. But I'm here to listen. He hasn't told me anything about it except that he didn't do it."
In court, the presence of Passaro's church supporters seems to buoy the 40-year-old former Special Forces medic. He looks behind him, smiles at them, waves, jokes.
He mouths to them his favorite Bible verse: the familiar Psalm Chapter 23, Verse 1: "The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want."
Bert Pitchford, the church's former pastor and a former Army Special Forces counterinsurgency specialist, feels a kinship with Passaro. He came to court four days last week, most of which the prosecution spent laying out its case for guilt.
"I think it's a fair trial," said Pitchford, a Pine Valley resident. "I'm anxious to see what the defense puts on."
Does Pitchford think Passaro could be guilty as charged?
"I don't know what happened -- Dave has never talked with me about it," Pitchford said. "I'm just here to support him spiritually. Only God knows the truth of the matter."
Another time Pitchford offered, "There's things that happen in life. If people saw me drive, they would say, 'He's a preacher?' "
In this legal dispute over the truth, a jury of citizens will be called upon to decide what happened to Wali, and whether to hold Passaro responsible.
Pitchford recommends another Bible verse, Proverbs 18:17, which loosely says a person seems right until you hear the other side.
Church member Roberta Keithly of Linden already has rendered her personal verdict for Passaro: not guilty in the slightest.
"I'm still very positive," she said after several days of damning testimony against him. "The Lord works in mysterious ways."
Since legal proceedings against Passaro began two years ago, his faith has surged, Keithly said.
When Keithly returned to court Friday afternoon just after lunch, Passaro looked at her and smiled. She complimented his gray suit and lavender tie.
Passaro pointed to a man nearby and told Keithly, "He said I look like one of the lawyers. I said, 'Hey, no need for name-calling.' "
They charmed each other, in the way that friends do.
Earlier this week, Passaro told Keithly his favorite church hymn: "He Will See Me Through."
"David uplifts everybody," she said. "We're going to sing it when he comes home next week."
A free man, she believes.
Staff writer Matthew Eisley can be reached at 829-4538 or firstname.lastname@example.org.