Last February 14, Justin Carter, then 18 years old, was indicted on a charge of "terroristic threat," a third-degree felony which carries a potential penalty of up to ten years in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. The "crime"? A Facebook comment.
Carter enjoyed the online video game League of Legends, and often chatted on Facebook with other players. Internet conversations are not the most civil and polite interactions – occasionally marked by obnoxious verbal jabs, rude but essentially meaningless. In February, Carter got into a verbal exchange with another player, who suggested he was dangerous or crazy. He responded sarcastically, "I'm fucked in the head alright, I think I'ma SHOOT UP A KINDERGARTEN [...] AND WATCH THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT RAIN DOWN [...] AND EAT THE BEATING HEART OF ONE OF THEM."
The comment, made two months after the Sandy Hook school massacre, was screencapped by a Canadian woman who alerted police in Texas. Carter was initially jailed in Austin, but was moved to Comal County when it was determined that's where he actually lived. According to his pro bono San Antonio attorney, Donald Flanary, the police didn't search his house and his father's house until weeks after the arrest. They found no weapons nor threatening documents, nor anything other than the computer used to make the comments. Jennifer Carter has said that her son has "never had any kind of fascinations with real guns or anything. He didn't even own a pocket knife. The only kind of gun he was ever around were those plastic guns you use in video games," according to James Roberts of local blog The Horn.
Carter's bond was set at a headline-grabbing $500,000; on July 11, 2013, an anonymous donor paid it. Prior to his release, Carter endured harassment and physical abuse from other inmates, and then, reportedly for his own protection, solitary confinement. He's currently living with his grandmother in San Antonio; the conditions of his bond prevent him from living with anyone under the age of 18, even his two siblings. Additionally, he can't be within a thousand feet of any place children may gather, nor can he use the Internet, so he's been unable to find a job.
In a July 3, 2013, press release, Comal County Criminal District Attorney Jennifer Tharp said that most of the county's cases are resolved through plea negotiations. Flanary said, "They've offered things – but unless they are willing to dismiss it, there is no deal." Jennifer Carter, Justin's mother, confirmed that her son has rejected offers of ten years and eight years in prison. "We don't believe you should say that you're guilty for something that you didn't do," she said. Tharp's press release stated that, in the absence of a plea agreement, Carter's case "will be tried before a jury of twelve Comal County citizens," and that her office has no further comment.
Legally, the case may rest on Carter's actual intentions. Under section 22.07 of the Texas Penal Code, "A person commits an offense if he threatens to commit any offense involving violence to any person or property with intent to: cause impairment or interruption of public communications, public transportation, public water, gas, or power supply or other public service," or to "place the public or a substantial group of the public in fear of serious bodily injury."
Jennifer Carter told me that her son was clearly being sarcastic. "He was not intending to threaten anyone. He was not intending to carry out a threat against a school or children. So, why should he go to jail for that, you know? There's supposed to be free speech in this country. We're supposed to be allowed to say anything we want to, as long it's not a direct threat with serious intent behind it."
Currently, Flanary is working on a writ of habeas corpus denouncing the handling of Carter's case. He says it will include "numerous claims of violations of the First and Fourth and Fifth and Sixth and Eighth Amendment rights." Meanwhile, at press time, no trial date had been announced. "Basically, the hearings have just sort of kept going on and on and on," said Jennifer Carter. "They've piled so many motions I just can't keep track anymore." She and her family are trying to stay optimistic. "Every hearing, we hope that it's going to be the one where they go, 'The case is dismissed' or 'We're not going to pursue charges.' But it just keeps going on." Another hearing has been set for March 28.
Flanary commented, "Prior to [Carter's] arrest, I was optimistic that [a case like] this wouldn't happen. Then when I got on the case, I was optimistic that, in a matter of days, it would be dismissed, because it's so stupid. Then after months went on, I was optimistic that after they see us fighting and they see all this press – bad press – that they're going say, 'This is just dumb, and we're going to stop.' That didn't happen. So, am I optimistic that the judge will do the right thing? Sure. But the reality is, we are prepared to go to the highest court in the land, and, if we have to, we will."
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