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.