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Twitter Assault: Can a Tweet Be Used For “Assault with Deadly Weapon”

Social media has sure come a long way. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for people to use the internet for just about everything. Want some food delivered to your door? You can do that with a click of a button. Want to read the latest New York Times article? You can easily find it in their archives.

But now social media is being used for things far more sinister. People distribute and look at child pornography so easily on the internet. Cyber bullying has caused kids to take their own lives.

And now in Texas, a Grand Jury found an animated GIF tweet an “assault with a deadly weapon.”


Twenty-nine year old Maryland man John Rivello tweeted an animated flashing GIF to journalist Kurt Eichenwald last year. Eichenwald had been critical of Donald Trump during the presidential campaign, and Rivello, a Trump supporter, knew Eichenwald suffered from epilepsy. With the intent to cause Eichenwald a seizure, he tweeted the animated flashing GIF and messaged another Twitter user saying “I hope this sends him into a seizure” and “let’s see if he dies.” He later altered Eichenwald’s Wikipedia page to show a fake date of death of the date he send the GIF.

twitter assaultHow Does a Grand Jury Work?

In general, grand jury proceedings are much more relaxed than jury trials. A grand jury proceeding has no judge present and often times does not even have any attorneys except for the prosecutor. The prosecutor explains the law to the jury and works with the jury to gather evidence and hear testimony. Unlike a jury trial, a grand jury has broad power to see and hear almost anything they would like. These proceedings are also held in strict confidence, which has the effect of encouraging witnesses to speak freely and protecting the defendant’s reputation in case the jury doesn’t decide to indict. If the grand jury find there’s enough evidence to indict, the case goes to trial. All that is necessary is a finding that the accused person probably committed the crime.

Grand juries only need a simple majority of two-thirds or three-fourths agreement for indictment, depending on the jurisdiction.

Why an Indictment?

The evidence showed the following: Eichenwald was a journalist with 318,000 followers on Twitter and had been critical of Donald Trump throughout his presidential campaign. On December 15, 2016, he saw that @jew_goldstein had replied to one of his Twitter post with a GIF. When Eichenwald clicked on the file, a strobe light triggered a seizure. Eichenwald fell to the ground and was incapacitated for several days, lost feeling in his left hand and had trouble speaking for several weeks.

Assault with a deadly weapon is a felony offense. In order to prove assault with a deadly weapon, the state must show that a defendant used  a deadly weapon or dangerous instrument. Many states consider guns or firearms deadly weapons. Nevertheless, a variety of instruments can be considered deadly weapons. Assault can include knowing, intentional, or even reckless conduct.

Here, the evidence demonstrated the defendant had an intent to cause Eichenwald harm. Rivello knew that Eichenwald suffered from epilepsy and bragged to another Twitter user that he hoped Eichenwald would suffer a seizure and die. While a GIF is not generally considered a “deadly weapon,” to someone who suffers from epilepsy, a strobe light is as dangerous as a tangible weapon. What’s more, it’s a well-known trigger to cause epileptic seizures. In this way, the grand jury considered the disability of the victim, the intent of the defendant, and the use of the GIF to cause the defendant’s desired result.

Now the case will go to trial to see whether a jury of Rivello’s peers will convict him of assault with a deadly weapon.

Erin Chan-Adams


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