The Facebook Comments That Were Taken as a 3rd Degree Terrorist Threat
Would you be worried if you saw the following words on Facebook?
“I’m f—ed up in the head alright, I think I’ma SHOOT UP A KINDERGARTEN” … “AND WATCH THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENTT RAIN DOWN” … “AND EAT THE BEATING HEART OF ONE OF THEM”
Need a little more context?
On February 14, 2013, an eighteen year old Justin Carter was discussing League of Legends, an online video game, with someone else on Facebook. Somewhere during that online conversation, Carter decided to make the comments about shooting up a kindergarten.
Carter’s timing couldn’t have been worse. Sixty days earlier, Adam Lanza had unloaded a .22-caliber rifle into twenty-eight people at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Someone in Canada made an anonymous “tip” about Carter’s Facebook comments. Canadian authorities forwarded the tip and a cell phone screenshot of Carter’s Internet comments to authorities in Austin, Texas. Law enforcement in Austin traced Carter’s name to an address “within 100 yards” of an elementary school. A judge believed the prosecutor’s assertion that there was a third-degree terrorist threat and issued an arrest warrant.
On February 21st, 2013, Carter was arrested at the San Antonio drapery shop where he worked. When police searched Carter’s home, they failed to find any guns or bomb-making materials. Even so, the court posted bail at half a million dollars. Although Carter’s parents were unable to make bail, an anonymous donor paid for Carter’s release in July 2013. Prosecutors still plan to follow up on the charges against Carter in 2014.
We Need Evidence
Image if you were on the jury for Justin Carter’s trial. The prosecutor wants to put him away for eight years based on the following pieces of evidence: testimony from an ex-girlfriend with a restraining order against him for stalking, a few suicidal messages on Facebook, and the three Facebook comments above. Given that the prosecutor must prove that Justin Carter made a third-degree terrorist threat beyond a reasonable doubt, it seems like a tall order.
The prosecution’s case seems silly given that Austin law enforcement have not received or seen Carter’s full conversation on Facebook. As Carter’s attorney points out, “I’m fucked in the head alright” reads like a response to a previous message. Austin police claim that “all caps [to] emphasize his anger or rage.” That is ridiculous on two levels. First, all caps are used on the internet all the time, not just in moments of anger or rage. Second, all caps could be shouting without anger. Comedians shout all the time on stage, but that doesn’t mean they’re about to shoot up a school.
More importantly, the prosecution’s inability to bring forth the full conversation violates court rules regarding evidence. There is a rule that if a party wants to introduce a conversation or a transcript, the opposing party has the right to demand that the jury receive the full conversation or transcript. The rule, sometimes referred to as “completing the story,” is designed to prevent frivolous prosecutions like this one. If Justin Carter’s conversation had ended with a “just kidding,” his defense attorney could reveal this whole case as the faux it is.
Our Actions Have Consequences but They Aren’t Always Legal Consequences
Carter did not decide to write “I’ma SHOOT UP A KINDGARTEN” completely at random. It seems obvious to me that Carter got the inspiration for that “joke” from the tragedy which had occurred just a few months ago. I don’t know what could have prompted Carter to refer to the shootings in such a manner. However, Carter needs to understand that what he said was disrespectful of the victims at Sandy Hook.
Does Carter deserve a criminal prosecution for his message? Of course not. Given that police searched his home and found no weapons, Carter does not present any danger to the public, let alone a clear and present danger. The prosecution is stretching and expanding “third-degree terrorist threat” as much as humanly possible. Carter’s attorney is asserting free speech as a defense and I think the First Amendment is one of Carter’s best shields in this case.