BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Domestic terrorist who encouraged fellow white supremacists to kill federal judges? Or shock jock who provided valuable information to the FBI?
Government prosecutors and defense lawyers offered strikingly different portraits of Hal Turner (for a short 2003 profile, go here), the New Jersey-based blogger and Internet talk show host, during opening statements this morning at his federal trial. Turner has been charged with threatening to assault and murder three federal judges in Chicago after he wrote on his blog that they “deserve to die” and posted their photographs and work addresses.
“This is not just political rhetoric. This is not protected by the First Amendment,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hogan.
Although he faced the jury during his opening remarks, Hogan frequently turned to point a finger at Turner, who wore a tie and gray suit and sat quietly at the defense table next to his two attorneys. “He regards himself as judge, juror and executioner,” Hogan said. “He thinks he has his own personal constitution.”
But Michael Orozco, an attorney for Turner, contended that Turner’s statements were indeed protected speech. “This case is nothing short of a modern-day witch hunt,” Orozco said during his remarks, which were far briefer than Hogan’s. “Mr. Turner was nothing but a shock jock, nothing but a radio personality whose hand was guided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.”
Lawyers for both sides made clear that Turner’s history as a paid FBI informant would figure prominently in the trial. (His suspected role with the FBI was first reported on this blog in January 2008. The blog item noted sharp criticism of the use of Turner as an informant by experts in police procedure.) Orozco said Turner was so highly regarded as an FBI informant that the agency paid for him to travel outside the United States to gather intelligence. “This isn’t some street snitch, ladies and gentleman,” he said. “This is a guy who was entrusted with top secret information.”
In fact, Turner had made statements similar to the ones for which he’s being prosecuted now many times during his years as an FBI informant, Orozco said. On at least one occasion he was instructed to ratchet up his rhetoric. “This is betrayal,” Orozco said.
But Hogan asserted that Turner was told when he became an informant that he would not be protected from prosecution if he were to commit a crime. The FBI repeatedly admonished Turner about his violent rhetoric and twice dropped him as an informant when he refused to follow the bureau’s instructions. After the FBI permanently stopped using him as an informant in July 2007, Hogan said, Turner pleaded in E-mails to let the U.S. Marshals Service allow him to serve as an informant. In October 2008, he wrote that he would not publish the home address of a federal district judge in Philadelphia with whom he disagreed because he felt it would jeopardize his pending relationship with the Marshals Service. “He knows exactly where the line is,” Hogan said.
The case has received considerable publicity in recent days as details have emerged about Turner’s past work for the FBI. Cameras flashed as Turner lit a cigar while leaving the courthouse during a break yesterday. The trial began yesterday with jury selection and is expected to last about a week.