Student Arrest, Jailed for Facebook Joke

In the latest reminder of how the US Justice System is too infrequently motivated by common sense, a Georgia student has spent the past six months in jail awaiting trial on charges he made a threat to his college.  The fact that the student arrested – Justin Carter – was forced to remain behind bars because his family cannot afford his $500,000 bail is compounded by the reality that he could face another five years in jail if convicted.

The case started when Justin made some comments online during a gaming-related argument:

Carter was first arrested in February after he got in an argument with fellow gamers on Facebook and posted a comment saying, “I’m f—ed 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.” Although Carter’s parents and attorney insist that the comment was a sarcastic response to another Facebook user, a Texan grand jury has indicted the teenager on charges related to terrorism.

Here’s how Justin’s father described what happened:

“Someone had said something to the effect of ‘Oh you’re insane. You’re crazy. You’re messed up in the head,'” Jack Carter told CNN affiliate KVUE in Austin.  “To which he replied ‘Oh yeah, I’m real messed up in the head. I’m going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still-beating hearts.’  Jack Carter said his son followed the claim with “LOL” and “J/K” — indicating that the comment wasn’t serious.”

Student Arrested Facebook JokeApparently a “Good Samaritan” in Canada who participated in the exchange took him seriously enough to Google the area where Justin lived and saw he was next to a school.  She then contacted local police who arrested Justin back in March.  Instead of taking 10 minutes to examine the situation honestly, the prosecutors decided to indict Justin on charges of making terroristic threats.

Never mind that a search of his home revealed Justin had no weapons.  Never mind the fact that at no point was Justin’s “threat” in any way carried out or attempted.  Never mind the fact that he wrote “jk” and other phrases in the same conversation where he emphasized he was joking.

After the search warrant turned up nada, a judge still set bail for Justin at $500,000 – an astronomical number far higher than many suspects get when charged with gun charges or violent crimes.  But for a student arrested on charges even a child can quickly see are baseless, bail is half a million dollars.  He hadn’t been convicted of anything.  Yet for the privilege of walking out the door, Justin was told he needed to past half a million dollars in bail.

Now the case is just getting underway and the prosecutors are not backing down.  At a recent press conference, the prosecutors stated Justin could get as many as 10 years in prison – if he does not cave to the tremendous pressure and plead guilty to some minor charge.  Understandably, Justin is suffering a great deal as a result of being jailed – CNN reports he is on suicide watch.  And his mother has written that, “[w]hile stuck in jail, Justin has been assaulted a number of times. He has been locked in solitary confinement for weeks.”

“He’s very depressed. He’s very scared and he’s very concerned that he’s not going to get out,” Jack Carter, Justin’s father, told CNN on Tuesday. “He’s pretty much lost all hope.”

Next Steps for Student Arrested for Joke

While Justin now has a lawyer defending him for free, a Change.org petition titled “Release Justin Carter and Change the Investigative Criteria for Terroristic Threat Laws” had received nearly 35,000 digital signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.  Fortunately, an anonymous donor stepped in to post Justin’s bail so he can escape prison purgatory.

Justin’s father says he understands the need for authorities to remain vigilant about threats of school violence.  Especially after Sandy Hook – the massacre took place just weeks before Justin’s alleged threat.  “I definitely see the need to investigate such claims. Absolutely,” he said. “But at some point during the investigation there has to be some common sense.”

Yes – common sense.  What happened to common sense?  As soon as the prosecutors conducted their investigation and realized Justin’s threat was at worst an incredible stupid thing to write – but by no means was any person in any jeopardy whatsoever – the case should have been dropped.  Justin never should have been charged.  Prosecutors are supposed to use common sense in evaluating which cases to pursue.  They are supposed to be on the front lines so they can review all the facts and apply the law in a fair and reasoned manner.

Perhaps more important, the Supreme Court has clearly protected speech of this sort.  Speech is always protected unless a person is directly inciting an act of violence – or should have known that a listener would be roused to violence.  Even “fighting words” are protected when the context is a joke or not serious.  Words in and of themselves are never a threat and should never be punished.  It is when those threats are accompanied with genuine intent to harm someone that police must step in consider charges or making an arrest.

But in this tragedy, the only victim is the student arrested: Justin Carter.  Not only is he victimized physically in jail, but since being arrested and charged he’s had to quit college and fight this life-shattering battle to clear his name.  We have a system that is supposed to protect against these kinds of injustices.  There are supposed to be checks and balances that prevent trumped-up charges from getting off the ground.  We have a Constitution that is supposed to protect us from the abuses of corrupt and/or incompetent government officials.

But just ask any student arrested unfairly (Duke Lacrosse Case anyone) and you’ll realize quickly that prosecutors too often are out to make a name for themselves, not protect the public.

Let’s hope that the judge has the common sense to do the right thing.  And if not, we must keep faith in the jury system to confront the facts of this case with the common sense neutrality all cases deserve.

+Cliff Satell

Cliff Satell

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