Threat Charges Overturned After Some Threats Deemed Impossible To Carry Out And Others Left No One Feeling Threatened

from the defending-the-right-of-jackasses-to-be-jackasses dept

Is a threat still a threat if there’s no possible way the threatened deed could possibly be carried out?

Venkat Balasubramani (writing for Eric Goldman’s blog) has gotten his hands on another bizarre “true threat” case, this one originating from Georgia and carrying enough unpleasant baggage that it made its way to the state’s Supreme Court despite the central threat being nothing of the sort.

Lister W. Harrell is nothing if not disagreeable. He was charged with violations related to his position as a landlord. He blew off his court date and tried to “persuade” two court clerks to withdraw the arrest warrant for his failure to appear. This led to charges of animal cruelty and attempting to intimidate a court officer. That’s where things get “fun,” in the sense of the word that means “I’m so glad this happened to someone else.”

On April 29, 2013, Harrell placed messages on the internet site Facebook that referred to Dodge County Superior Court Clerk Rhett Walker and Deputy Chief Clerk Tammy Graham. One post threatened that if the bench warrant was not lifted, Harrell would post an internet link to a video which he claimed showed Graham engaging in sexual activity with Harrell and two other men…

That’s an ugly threat. One problem, though:

[N]o such video existed.

Not having the very thing he was attempting to blackmail a court clerk with didn’t stop Harrell from continuing to make other claims he had no chance of backing up.

At trial, evidence was also presented that on April 15, 2013, Harrell left two voicemail messages intended for Shirley Webb, Harrell’s former girlfriend and the mother of two of Harrell’s children. In one message, Harrell stated that he was Sid Carter, Webb’s current boyfriend, was placing the call from the cell phone of Harrell’s son, and referred to a “dead pussy” in Webb’s mailbox. In the other message, Harrell implied that he intended to upload pornographic videos of Webb to an internet site.

Apparently, this “pornographic” video didn’t exist either.

Harrell did much, much more than this. According to the allegations, a dead cat was found in Webb’s mailbox and an animal trap in the adjoining area between Harrell and Webb’s property. Harrell also “slowed down” when driving by the house and “pointed at the mailbox.”

He also went after court clerk Rhett Walker, making another set of vaguely-threatening statements.

In another post, Harrell listed Walker’s personal cell phone number and urged readers to call Walker to tell him to leave Harrell alone while he was “on the run,” and thus not ruin Harrell’s “chicken foot eating victory.*” Harrell also initiated telephone communication with Walker in an attempt to persuade him to lift the bench warrant, saying that if he did not do so by a certain date, Harrell would “turn [Walker’s] world upside down,” and that “you know what will happen on Facebook.”

*No idea.

However, the court found that while Harrell was odious and childish, he was not guilty of issuing anything resembling a “true threat.”

The court says that under Virginia v. Black, states may criminalize true threats, which it says are defined as statements where the speaker intends to create a fear of bodily harm. Under this standard, none of Harrell’s statements qualified. His posts to the Facebook group “DixieMafia,” while embarrassing and even caustic, did not intend to place anyone in fear of harm. Nor did the putative victims testify that they were placed in any fear of harm as a result of his statements.

So, we have threats that couldn’t possibly be carried out (the nonexistent sex videos), threats that no one felt genuinely threatened by, and a dead cat of unknown origin, but tied to this case by Harrell’s statements. And with that being the only thread tying Harrell to the dead cat, the court severs the connection by declaring it to be “improperly joined” to the rest of the charges. That being said, Harrell can still be tried for animal cruelty. The high court’s decision notes that a jury could reasonably find that the dead cat in the mailbox was related to the animal trap found on the premises, but his “dead pussy” comment left on Webb’s voicemail won’t be a part of the evidence.

The moral is that most criminals are terrible people, but not all terrible people are criminals. A lot of what falls under protected speech can be brutish and nasty without breaking the law. That may seem like a bad thing, but ensuring free speech remains free means having to support decisions in which it seems like a terrible person has gotten away with something. Some statements he made were vague. Others were merely laughable. And even at their ugliest, the targets of his statements remained unimpressed. It’s pretty hard to make a “threat” charge stick when no one admits to feeling threatened.

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Comments on “Threat Charges Overturned After Some Threats Deemed Impossible To Carry Out And Others Left No One Feeling Threatened”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Chicken Foot

Up in the rain-soaked forests of the Pacific Northwest, when the weather turns towards Pumpkin season, the flannel-clad lumberjacks compete in telling each other stories about the “Sasquatch.”   You know… Big Foot.

Well, down in Georgia, they don’t let no wet Cascadian lumberjacks outdo them in story-telling ability. In the “Peach State” they tell their stories about the Chicken Foot.

A Chicken Foot Eatin’ Victory is one the great, all-time tales in Georgia.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Chicken Foot

A Chicken Foot Eatin’ Victory is one [of] the great, all-time tales in Georgia.

As in, “There’s no there there?” I wouldn’t expect anyone to find much meat on a chicken’s foot. They’re essentially skin covering bones, aren’t they? I suppose it’s too much to expect him to have heard of Pyrrhic Victory (“Any more such victories and we’ll have lost the war”).

Malor (profile) says:

It’s worth pointing out that horrible people have rights, too. Maybe it’s especially horrible people that have rights, because the only time you really need them is when someone in the government is angry with you, up to and including wanting you dead. And when they’re that pissed, they can use their government-granted powers to make you sound like the scummiest scumbag who ever scummed.

Rights that only exist when you’re popular aren’t rights, they’re revocable privileges, easily removed with a smear job.

Even if you have no empathy at all for the ‘bad guys’ (who may not, in fact, be bad at all), protecting everyone’s rights is enlightened self-interest, because they protect you, too. In our nasty, nasty system, if you ever need them, you will need them very badly.

tqk (profile) says:

Re: Horrible people have rights too.

All of that’s true, but there’s another reason as well. Who, in your opinion, came out looking the worst in this story? People like Harrell should be given all the rope they want, the better to hang themselves with. He’s his own worst advertising. He’s just gone to the max showing all the world what a malicious twit he is. Threatening to release scandalous videos which don’t even exist? What an imbecile.

Anonymous Coward says:

What kind of moron threatens or attempts to blackmail court clerks? What a fucking idiot. The bad thing about this is that now he’s going to be constantly targeted by the police. The one thing about cops is that they can keep arresting you and while the charges may get dismissed, you’re going to spend a lot of time in jail before it gets put in front of a judge. Ask that store clerk in Florida that was arrest over 200 times for trespassing in that convenience store where he worked and bothered nobody.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Impossible Threats, Huh?

I will come there and make you fuck yourself.

I will insert secret gene therapy into your water supply and give you a sterility gene that you will pass on to your children, and all your children’s children, yea, unto the seventh generation.

I will hire a meteorite whisperer to call down a strike upon the birdbath in your garden … WHILE YOUR FAVOURITE BIRDS ARE IN IT!!

I like this game…

Anonymous Coward says:

OK, here is the question.

Were the threats this guy made possible? No. Is this guy certifiable? Very likely. If some wack job is threatening me with crazy stuff, even if not possible, do I think this guy is a threat to me? Of course.

This guy sounds batshit crazy and should not be walking around. Want to pass a good law. Outlaw batshit crazy people and get them off the streets.

Lister Harrell says:

Lister Harrell

In regards to the discussions about my convictions and the unanimous reversals by the Georgia Supreme Court .
After years of harassment in my home , Dodge County by the local elected officials I found Facebook as a way to get even .
Looking back I was wrong in posting embarrassing posts in an attempt to get even with the wrongs these people of power have inflicted on me and my family for years .
But what I did instead of getting them back I enabled them to destroy me and my family .
By illegally charging me for these rude and embarrassing post even though the charges where reversed by the Georgia Supreme Court and my record cleared after I spent almost three years in prison which during that time my oldest daughter took her life , my youngest daughter was made homeless , my 10 year old son was put in a foster home . We lost everything we owned including our family farm while what other assets we had were stolen or destroyed . When I was freed after 28 months in prison , I was in a wheelchair unable to walk , homeless , and helpless .
I regret letting the actions of a few corrupt officials enrage me enough to fight back in the way I did .
Lister Harrell

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