A three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has upheld the conviction of a criminal defendant who threatened the life of several federal judges on a blog that he maintained (U.S. v. Turner). Here is brief summary of the case.
On June 2, 2009, Harold Turner published a blog post declaring that three Seventh Circuit judges deserved to die for their recent decision that the Second Amendment did not apply to the states:
If they are allowed to get away with this by surviving, other Judges will act the same way.
These Judges deserve to be made such an example of as to send a message to the entire judiciary: Obey the Constitution or die.
Turner’s lengthy commentary declared that the blood of these three judges would “replenish the tree of liberty,” that the judges “didn’t get the hint” sent by a gunman who had murdered the family of another federal judge in Chicago, that they had not “faced REAL free men willing to walk up to them and kill them for their defiance and disobedience,” that their ruling was “so sleazy and cunning as to deserve the ultimate response,” and that the judges “deserve to be killed.” The next morning Turner posted photographs, work addresses, and room numbers for each of the three judges, along with a map indicating the location of the courthouse in which they worked, and a photograph of the building modified to point out “Anti-truck bomb barriers.”
A jury convicted Turner of threatening to assault or murder Judges Frank Easterbrook, William Bauer, and Richard Posner with the intent to impede, intimidate, or interfere with them in the performance of their duties or to retaliate against them on account of their performance of official duties. This appeal presents several issues for our review, including whether the jury’s verdict was supported by sufficient evidence of a true threat of violence. We hold that the evidence was sufficient, that the jury was properly instructed regarding a “true threat,” and that Turner was not prejudiced by any error. We affirm.
One interesting aspect of the case is the dissent which would have overturned the conviction. The dissent saw the criminal defendant’s actions more as advocacy rather than as a true threat. One major tipping point for the dissent is that the criminal defendant made his comments via a blog post rather than through an email or phone call directly to the judges. According to the dissent:
…I would hold that Turner’s communications were advocacy of the use of force and not a threat. It is clear that Turner wished for the deaths of Judges Easterbrook, Posner, and Bauer. [Majority Op. at 4–5.] But I read his statements, made in the passive voice, [see id. at 22], as an exhortation toward “free men willing to walk up to them and kill them” and not as a warning of planned violence directed toward the intended victims, [id. at 5.] This reading is furthered by the fact that Turner’s words were posted on a blog on a publicly accessible website, [id. at 4, 8], and had the trappings of political discourse, invoking Thomas Jefferson’s famous quotation that “[t]he tree of liberty must be replenished from time to time with the blood of tyrants and patriots,” [id. at 5.] Although vituperative, there is no doubt that this was public political discourse. His speech might be subject to a different interpretation if, for example, the statements were sent to the Judges in a letter or email. See Malik, 16 F.3d at 50. However, Turner’s public statements of political disagreement are different from a threat.