I am constantly amazed at how dimwitted some criminals can be. We have covered them in these pages before, from the guy who left evidence of his violent plans open on his desktop, to the robber who reached out to his victim via Facebook.
On Thursday in Pennsylvania, a federal jury convicted Anthony D. Elonis on four counts of threatening his estranged wife, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Berks County Sheriff’s Department, a kindergarten class, and an FBI agent. The vehicle for his litany of threats was none other than Facebook.
What did Elonis threaten to do? Some pretty bad stuff, actually. Keep reading to see why it is lucky he’s no criminal mastermind….
Shortly before Elonis made the online comments at issue in the case, he lost his job and went through some serious personal struggles. The beginning of the article describes both the prosecution and defense arguments. For a moment, it seems like there might be some actual question as to whether or not his comments crossed the legal line.
From the Law Technology News:
To federal prosecutors, Elonis’ posts on the site were the perfect way to make sure people in his life became fearful for their lives.
But to defense counsel, Elonis’ Facebook posts were a way to vent his anger as his life came unhinged when his home life fell apart and he lost his job.
To be fair, Elonis was having a pretty rough go of it. He caught his wife with another man, he got demoted and lost his job at Dorney Park and Wild Water Kingdom, and his wife filed a restraining order against him. He said his online rants were basically rap lyrics, his way of dealing with the stress.
But then we finally see what Elonis actually said (emphasis added):
Among the many alleged threats made by Elonis, he wrote five days after he was fired from Dorney Park that “‘Y’all sayin I had access to keys for the all the fuckin’ gates. … Y’all think it’s too dark and foggy to secure your facility from a man as mad as me? You see, even without a paycheck, I’m still the main attraction. Whoever thought the Halloween Haunt could be so fuckin’ scary?’” according to court papers.
Elonis also posted — in this instance several days after a judge ordered a PFA in favor of his estranged wife: “‘Fold up your PFA and put in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?’”
A day later, Elonis wrote that he might shoot up a kindergarten class: “‘I’m checking out and making a name for myself. Enough elementary schools in 10-mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined. And hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a kindergarten class,’” according to court papers.
After Elonis was visited by FBI agent Denise Stevens, he also posted that it “‘took all the strength I had not to turn the bitch ghost. Pull my knife, flick my wrist, and slit her throat. Leave her bleedin’ from her jugular in the arms of her partner.’”
Maybe I don’t listen to enough Philly underground rap, but to me, that’s scary. It doesn’t sound like simply venting. And fear was the justification prosecutors used to convict him. Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherri A. Stephan said it didn’t matter if Elonis actually planned to harm someone. Instead, the jury “had to decide if a ‘reasonable, objective’ person would be put in fear by his lengthy screeds.”
The jury only took two hours to find Elonis guilty on four of the five charges against him (he was acquitted on a count of threatening his former coworkers). He could be sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote that his case probably wasn’t helped by the fact he smirked all morning as the assistant U.S. attorney cross-examined him.
I feel bad that Elonis’s life was so difficult. It makes me sad that he made his life even harder by making the poor choice to post that stuff online. In the end, though, whether or not he was serious about his threats, thank God nobody had to find out.
Jury Convicts on 4 of 5 Counts in Facebook Threat Case [Legal Technology News]
Smirking Pa. man guilty in violent Facebook threat case [Philadelphia Inquirer]
Christopher Danzig is a writer in Oakland, California. He previously covered legal technology for InsideCounsel magazine. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisdanzig or email him at [email protected]. You can read more of his work at chrisdanzig.com..