We recently wrapped up a week-long jury trial representing a client who was charged with a single count of Threats of Violence. This offense was formerly known as Terroristic Threats. It’s a felony, punishable by up to 5 years in prison and a $10,000 fine.
Our client was a 37-year-old male. This was his first criminal offense of any kind. Our client had formerly worked as a video editor for Hubbard Broadcasting, specifically KSTP-TV, for the last 10 years. He consistently had positive annual performance reviews.
Our client was fired in late April 2017 after a disagreement with his producer over an error on a news video. Hubbard attempted to characterize the termination as “for cause,” thus making him ineligible for unemployment benefits.
Our client successfully appealed the denial of unemployment benefits on his own. Hubbard attempted to argue that our client engaged in misconduct during his disagreement with his producer, but the unemployment law judge found Hubbard’s explanation wasn’t credible. The unemployment law judge found our client matter-of-factly told his producer how he felt and did not engage in employee misconduct.
Our client returned to Hubbard in November 2017 in an attempt to get his job back. His unemployment was about to run out and he was having difficulty finding work. Hubbard refused to give him his job back.
A Hubbard security officer attempted to call our client to tell him to stay away from the Hubbard campus after our client was seen at a picnic table on June 10, 2018. That was a Sunday. Our client had sat at a picnic table at Hubbard, had a cigar, and reminisced about his old friends and mentors. He did not have contact with anyone on that date.
The security officer attempted to reach our client for several days, leaving a few voicemails asking our client to call him back. Our client finally returned the security officer’s calls on June 29, 2018. In response to being told to stay away from Hubbard, our client told the security officer “you need to change your f-ing policies, you know what happened in Maryland.”
This phone call took place a day after the tragic shooting at the Maryland Gazette newspaper. The statement on the phone call was the basis for the Threats of Violence charge. The state accused our client of making a threat to commit a crime of violence.
A charge of Threats of Violence can be a difficult charge for the state to prove at trial. As we all know, the state carries the burden to prove a defendant’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In a trial on a charge of Threats of Violence, the state has to identify which specific crime the defendant threatened to commit. And it can’t just be any crime; it has to be what’s known as a crime of violence.
A crime of violence has a very specific definition under the law. In this case, the state chose to rely on a threatened crime of Second Degree Assault with a Dangerous Weapon that caused others to fear immediate bodily harm or death.
We didn’t deny that our client made the statement on that June 29, 2018 phone call. Rather, we argued at trial that our client’s statement did not constitute a threat.
The state chose to focus the overwhelming majority of its case and witness testimony on events that happened back in 2017. The state presented witness after witness from Hubbard Broadcasting who all testified that our client was terminated for engaging in a heated discussion with his producer, that our client wasn’t happy when he was fired, and that he returned in November 2017 to ask for his job back.
We knew what the state’s plan was before trial – it was going to try to paint our client as a disgruntled former employee who couldn’t get over being fired. This was so far from the truth, so disingenuous, and so unfair. It was actually sad to watch what they were trying to do to our client. On top of that, Hubbard hired a big shot criminal defense lawyer to help prepare their witnesses to testify. It was an absolute hit job.
Thankfully, the jury was able to see through the state’s efforts to get a conviction. The jury’s patience seemed to grow thinner and thinner with each new witness who came in and talked about irrelevant stuff that happened in 2017. We hardly had any cross-examination questions for some of these witnesses, in an attempt to drive home the message to the jury that their testimony had nothing to do with this case.
The one witness we did spend some time cross-examining was the lead investigator, Sgt. Peterson. Sgt. Peterson conceded that the phone call was vague, that our client never said he was actually going to go to Hubbard Broadcasting, that our client never referred to any particular individual, that our client never mentioned any weapon, never said he was going to do something with a weapon, and that the location of our client was not known during the phone call. Sgt. Peterson acknowledged that there was insufficient probable cause to believe our client had committed the offense of Threats of Violence.
The sole issue for the jury to decide was whether the statement our client made on the June 29, 2018 phone call constituted a threat to commit Second Degree Assault with a Dangerous Weapon. We vehemently reminded the jury of its task during closing argument. We told the jury to disregard all testimony on issues occurring in 2017.
In addition, we argued that our client never threatened to do anything. He made a comment out of anger in the heat of the moment after being told he wasn’t welcome at Hubbard. There is a drastic difference between making a statement out of anger – even a comment made in poor taste referring to a mass shooting – and actually threatening to threaten someone with a dangerous weapon.
The jury deliberated for a little over an hour before returning the Not Guilty verdict. It was such a relief.
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