HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — A blogger was acquitted Friday of charges that he threatened state officials when he urged readers to “take up arms” and suggested that government leaders “obey the Constitution or die.”
Harold “Hal” Turner, of North Bergen, N.J., was found not guilty of felony inciting injury to people and misdemeanor threatening by a Hartford jury that deliberated less than three hours.
Turner, who will be returned to prison to complete a nearly three-year sentence for threatening judges in Illinois, hugged family members after the verdict was announced.
“I am very pleased,” he said, as he was led away by correction officers.
Turner, who represented himself, argued that no one was hurt and there was no evidence that his words led to any violence. He also cited his First Amendment right to free speech.
Turner wrote a blog posting in June 2009 in response to state legislation, withdrawn three months earlier, that would have given lay people of Roman Catholic churches more control over parish finances. Turner, 49, believed the legislation flew in the face of the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.
He suggested that Catholics “take up arms and put down this tyranny by force,” said government leaders should “obey the Constitution or die” and said he would post officials’ home addresses. He also wrote that if authorities tried to stop his cause, “I suspect we have enough bullets to put them down too.”
Two state officials testified that they had received unrelated threats before because of their jobs, but they said Turner’s comments went above and beyond those previous remarks.
The trial began Thursday, and both sides rested their cases Friday afternoon. Turner didn’t testify or present any witnesses, saying the state hadn’t proved its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Turner’s mother, Kathy Diamond, said she was grateful and happy for the acquittal.
“I think the state of Connecticut ought to be ashamed of themselves, and this was nothing but a political witch hunt,” she said.
During his closing argument, Turner said, “Ladies and gentlemen, this case is a fraud.”
“I said some nasty things about politicians, and they’re trying to use the power of the state to throw me in jail,” he said. “These are the kinds of things we heard about in the former Soviet Union.”
But prosecutor Thomas Garcia said Turner’s targets testified that they were truly concerned about their safety and Turner’s words were meant to incite violence.
“Words have power. We know that from our daily lives,” Garcia said. “They can have the power to inspire people to do good. They also have the power to inspire fear and incite others to violence. That’s the central issue and in many ways the only issue in this case.”
He accused Turner of twisting the facts and putting on a “performance” for the jury. He also reminded the jury of random acts of violence on public officials without mentioning any names.
“This isn’t a battle between big, bad government and poor, little Hal Turner,” Garcia told the jury. “Hal Turner’s the bully here.”
On Thursday, Andrew McDonald, who was a state senator at the time of the blog post, told the jury Turner’s posting “was an extraordinary document that far exceeded any other threat I had ever received.”
“I thought that this was a very real threat,” said McDonald, who is now Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s general counsel.
State Ethics Enforcement Officer Thomas Jones added in his testimony, “I interpreted this as people were going to be coming to my house within 24 hours with bullets and guns. … This was real. This was tangible. This was electric.”
State Capitol Police said Turner’s targets were McDonald, Jones and Michael Lawlor, a state representative at the time who is now the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice planning. McDonald and Lawlor were co-chairmen of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which proposed the legislation.
Turner alleged during the trial that McDonald used the church finances bill to retaliate against the church for opposing gay marriage rights, which McDonald denied.
Prosecutors say Jones was targeted because he had written to Catholic Church officials, saying some of their activities at the state Capitol could possibly be considered lobbying and they weren’t registered as lobbyists.
The federal case for which Turner is serving a prison sentence stemmed from his online criticism after a 2009 ruling in which a federal appeals court dismissed lawsuits challenging handgun bans in Chicago and Oak Park, Ill. Turner said: “These judges must die.”