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A Confident Defense Rests Unexpectedly in Turner Threat Trial

By Sonia Scherr on December 3, 2009 - 4:49 pm, Posted in Trial Updates

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — In a surprise move, both the defense and prosecution rested their cases early this afternoon at the trial of white supremacist Hal Turner, clearing the way for the case to go to a jury tomorrow.

After presenting evidence for less than a day and a half, the prosecution announced shortly after noon that it was finished. “We feel like we proved our case,” Assistant U.S. Attorney William Hogan said in a brief interview.

After a 30-minute recess, the defense followed suit without calling any witnesses. Closing arguments will take place tomorrow morning. Then jurors will decide whether Turner is guilty of threatening to assault and murder three federal judges in Chicago after he wrote on his blog in June that they “deserve to be killed” and posted their work locations.

Speaking with reporters afterward, defense lawyers said they didn’t bother presenting evidence because government prosecutors were unconvincing. “We feel they have not proven this case beyond any kind of doubt,” said Nishay Sanan of Chicago. “It is their burden [of proof], not ours — and they failed miserably in that burden.”

Michael Orozco, Turner’s New Jersey-based lawyer, added that the defense team didn’t want to give the prosecution a chance to confuse the jury or bring up irrelevant issues when cross-examining defense witnesses. Prosecutors were hampered when U.S. District Judge Donald Walter, who was flown in from Louisiana to try the case, refused to admit some evidence that they wanted to use, including blog posts, E-mails and other correspondence from Turner.

The government’s witnesses consisted of five FBI agents and one U.S. marshal, who testified today that Turner unsuccessfully tried to become a confidential informant for the U.S. Marshals Service after he was dropped by the F.B.I. U.S. Marshal James Elcik first met Turner in June 2008, when he urged Turner to remove a posting on his website. Turner said in that posting that he was prepared to uncover and distribute the names and home addresses of the children and grandchildren of U.S. Supreme Court justices who had opposed the death penalty for child rapists. Turner complied with Elcik’s request. Four months later, in October 2008, Turner left a voicemail message for Elcik about a potentially catastrophic attack on a Roanoke, Va., courthouse. He communicated every few days with Elcik, who strung him along but told the court today that he never considered making Turner an informant. Although Elcik did not elaborate on why, other evidence presented today suggested that Turner was considered a loose cannon. An FBI document, dated Aug. 1, 2007, closed out Turner as an informant because of “serious control problems.” In an E-mail to Elcik detailing his history with the FBI, Turner candidly stated that agents had concerns about Turner’s role. “There were arguments about whether what I was doing would CAUSE someone to go out and commit a violent crime,” he wrote.

Turner told Elcik in an E-mail that because he anticipated becoming a U.S. marshal’s informant, he would refrain from posting the address of a federal judge in Philadelphia with whom he disagreed. He also said he was furious with the FBI and accused the agency of divulging his identity. In the transcript of an expletive-filled voice mail to an FBI Special Agent — which is filed in federal court but was not discussed at the trial — Turner said he had just gotten off the phone with an NBC correspondent who was working on a story about Turner’s relationship with the FBI. “This is gonna put my life in jeopardy,” he said on Feb. 20, 2008. “It’s gonna ruin everything for the future. And I am fit to be fuckin’ tied. I oughta go down to that fuckin’ FBI headquarters and pull a Timothy fuckin’ McVeigh. I think you should call me back because I am so fuckin’ furious it isn’t fuckin’ funny.” (Unidentified hackers confronted Turner on the Web forum of his radio program, “The Hal Turner Show,” after they hacked into his E-mails and found correspondence between Turner and his FBI handler. The FBI has refused to comment on the matter, although this blog publicized Turner’s informant status in January 2008.)

Although Turner wrote to Elcik in late October 2008 that it probably would not be a good idea for him to serve as an informant, he kept up the contact. On Jan. 25, 2009, he sent Elcik a link to a blog post about a federal judge in New York who he felt had violated the Constitution. “I have just outed the home town info of a federal district court judge,” he wrote. “You may wish to take appropriate steps to insure her safety.”

The government presented several blog posts and E-mails today in which Turner claimed that posting the personal information of public figures was an effective strategy because it could enable someone to kill them. During cross-examination, the defense got an FBI agent to admit that Turner’s postings on the Chicago federal judges included mostly information that was publicly available. Special Agent Joseph Raschke acknowledged that the judges’ work addresses can be accessed on the 7th  U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals website and that Turner did not post the judges’ home addresses. While he said he was worried about Turner’s white supremacist audience, he conceded that Turner did not address the blog posts to a specific person.