Hal Turner Acquitted in Blogging Threat Trial

Hal Turner, an outspoken racist radio talk show host and blogger who became an FBI informant, has been acquitted by a Connecticut jury of threatening and inciting violence against three state officials in his online blog.

The 49-year-old white supremacist comments were “outrageous” and “distasteful,” but the prosecution failed to prove Turner had engaged in criminal conduct beyond a reasonable doubt, jurors said after the verdict.

Before the defense phase of the jury trial, Hartford Superior Court Judge Carl J. Schuman ruled that Turner couldn’t mount a First Amendment defense but, in delivering his own closing arguments, the defendant suggested to the jury that his comments were protected by free speech.

In 2009, Turner expressed outrage at proposed legislation introduced in the Connecticut Legislature to give lay members more say in the financial matters of the Roman Catholic Church. In a blog webcast, Turner threatened to give out the home address of two state lawmakers, Michael Lawlor and Andrew McDonald, and Thomas K. Jones, an official with the state ethics office.

Turner called on Catholics to “take up arms and put down this tyranny by force. These beastly government officials should be made an example of as a warning to others in government: Obey the Constitution or die,” he said. “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.”

Turner was arrested by state authorities before he could carry out his threat to publicly divulge the address of the state officials. A resident of North Bergen, N.J., he was charged with inciting injury, a felony, and a companion misdemeanor charge of threatening. He could have been sentenced to up to 11 years in prison if convicted.

While the state charges were pending, Turner was arrested by federal authorities on charges of making other comments threatening federal judges two years after the FBI severed its relationship with its one-time informant.

During the course of two federal mistrials in 2009 and 2010, it was disclosed that Turner had worked as an FBI informant for several years, infiltrating various extremist groups, including the Aryan Nations and the National Alliance.

After a third federal trial in August 2010, Turner was convicted of threatening federal judges and sentenced to 33 months in prison. He is scheduled to be released in October 2012, but under terms of supervised release he will be barred from participating in Internet or satellite radio programming for three years.

Turner represented himself in last week’s state jury trial in Hartford, telling the jury he was being prosecuted in as retaliation by the state for speech it did not like. He also had the assistance of John Stawicki, a public defender, The Hartford Courant reported.

“The state is prosecuting me simply for uttering words and there's a problem with that, because in the United States of America people are supposed to be free to express their opinions,” Turner said in delivering his own closing arguments to the jury.

He said his threat to release the home addresses of the state officials was not an act of physical force or violence. “I never said, 'Go attack these men,’” he said. “I chose my words very carefully.”

“Ladies and gentlemen, this whole case is a fraud,’’ Turner told the jury. “I said some nasty things about some politicians and they are misusing the power of the state to throw me in jail. This comes down to whether or not we as Americans can say things about our government without going into a gulag. These are the kinds of things we used to hear about in the former Soviet Union.”

“Although we found him not guilty, we don't think he was innocent," juror Ann Parise told the Hartford Courant after the trial was over. Turner’s comments in the blog post were “outrageous,” she said.

Another juror, who agreed to speak on the condition he not be identified, said jurors couldn’t agree on the elements of the crime necessary for conviction under the law.  For instance, jurors believed that Turner terrorized McDonald and Jones, who testified at the trial, but that he did not incite others to harm them.

“A lot of what he said was awful,” the juror told the Hartford newspaper. “No one considered him a likable person. No one thought he was someone you'd want to have a beer with, but the law is the law.”

Before Turner was sentenced on the federal charges that are keeping him locked up, U.S. Attorney Patrick J. Fitzgerald filed a sentencing memorandum, claiming Turner has engaged in a campaign of “intimidation against public officials and private citizens” for years.

Even after being arrested on the federal charges, Fitzgerald said, Turner continued his intimidating speech against a key prosecution witnesses.

“All the while, Turner has displayed defiance and no regret for his actions,” the federal prosecutor said. Turner, he said, “remains utterly incapable of acknowledging the genuine fear experienced by his innumerable victims – that is, except when he is the victim of a perceived threat. Turner has committed a serious crime, engaged in witness intimidation, lied repeatedly under oath, and has shown no regret whatsoever.”