(Updated 6:07 p.m.) A Hartford jury returned not guilty verdicts Friday for both a felony and misdemeanor charges in the case against New Jersey blogger Hal Turner, who was arrested by Capitol Police in July 2009 after encouraging his audience to “take up arms” against two Connecticut lawmakers.
The jury cleared Turner, 49 of North Bergen, New Jersey, of a felony charge of inciting violence and a misdemeanor charge of second degree threatening.
Turner, who represented himself in the Connecticut case, is currently serving a 33 month prison sentence for threatening federal judges in Illinois.
The Connecticut charges stemmed from a 2009 blog post in which he suggested readers should take action against then-lawmakers Andrew McDonald and Michael Lawlor, as well as Thomas Jones, an enforcement officer in the Office of State Ethics.
He told readers to tune into his radio show the next day, when he would release their home addresses. However, he was arrested by state police before that broadcast.
“These beastly government officials should be made an example of as a warning to others in government: Obey the Constitution or die,” he wrote. “If any state attorney, police department or court thinks they’re going to get uppity with us about this; I suspect we have enough bullets to put them down, too.”
At the time Turner was upset over a bill backed by Lawlor and McDonald who were chairmen of the state’s Judiciary Committee. The legislation would have changed how the Roman Catholic Church was governed.
In his blog he suggested Catholics should take up arms to “put this tyranny down by force.”
During his closing arguments Friday, Turner, took the statement and suggested to jurors that he wasn’t trying to incite violence against the men, rather violence against the abstract concept of tyranny.
“I never said go attack these men, I chose my words very carefully,” he said. “You can’t go to the supermarket and get a can of tyranny. You can’t go to the hardware store and get a dump truck load of tyranny.”
Turner was dramatic and animated as he made his case to the jury.
Despite Judge Carl J. Schuman’s ruling the previous day that he could not have the First Amendment read to the jury, he tried hard to frame his case around freedom of speech, calling it an “epic battle between Constitutional rights and the government.”
“Ladies and gentlemen this whole case is a fraud. I said some nasty things about some politicians and they are misusing the power of the state to throw me in jail,” he said. “This comes down to whether or not we as Americans can say things about our government without going into a Gulag.”
Responding to Turner, Senior Assistant State’s Attorney Tom Garcia told jurors they had just witnessed a performance tailored to them as an audience. The First Amendment was not relevant to the trial, he said.
“Words have power. They can have the power to inspire people to do good things, we know that from our daily lives. But they can also inspire fear and incite others to violence. That’s the central issue and in many ways the only issue in this case,” he said.
Turner and the state were each allowed one hour for their closing arguments. The state’s initial argument lasted a little over 10 minutes. Meanwhile, Turner used the entire hour.
He said his blog post amounted to a shock jock radio host talking in a shocking manner.
“We’re intentionally abrasive. We’re intentionally shocking. It’s what I do, it’s how I make a living,” he said.
He argued that the broadcast in which he planed to reveal the home addresses of Lawlor, McDonald and Jones wasn’t even broadcast in Connecticut because a Danbury radio station occupies the same frequency. He also never posted pictures of them on his blog, he said.
You can’t rush out and kill somebody if you don’t know where they are or what they look like, he said.
But Garcia said listeners in Connecticut could have easily tuned into the broadcast through “live listen” links to on Turner’s website.
“He didn’t post this on the North Bergen Web. He posted it on the World Wide Web,” he said.
In an effort to debunk the state’s assertion he intended or wanted others to kill or harm the officials, Turner played for the court a recording of the phone call where police initially contacted him. During the call he tells the officer he wasn’t going to bring his “fat ass to Connecticut to do anything bad.”
“I hope nobody goes off the deep end and does something terrible,” he said in the recording.
But Garcia said that at the beginning of the phone call Turner was not aware he was speaking to a police officer and he only starts backing off his words after he figured that out.
It’s easy to take cheap shots at politicians but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be protected by the law, he said.
“It’s not poor little Hal Turner being bullied by the big bad government,” he said. “Hal Turner is the bully here.”
The jury deliberated the case for less than three hours, stopping once to request an additional copy of the blog post and the opportunity to listen to the phone call recording. Just as the courthouse was scheduled to close, they returned with the not guilty verdicts.
Hearing the verdict, Turner wiped tears from his eyes and mouthed “thank you” to the jury with his hand on his chest.
“I’m very pleased,” he told reporters.
His mother Kathy Diamond, who was in the room, began sobbing when she heard the news.
“I’m very proud of my son, I always have been. I think he did a fine job of representing himself and the First Amendment today,” she said after court adjourned. “This is a win for all Americans, not just my son.”
Public defender John Stawicki, who was on hand to assist Turner, agreed the decision was a victory for the First Amendment. He said that while he didn’t agree with the language that was used in the blog post, he was appalled when he first heard about the charges. People use strong language to get others’ attention all the time, he said.
“If we don’t have the right to rouse peoples’ passions then we don’t have a free society,” he said.
He said the charges against Turner were just one example of Connecticut being a state that “is increasingly going out of its way to punish people who are in disagreement with its policies.”
“Just look at what happened after the recent budget negotiations, so called. The police didn’t agree with the governor so they got laid off,” he said.