A federal appeals court Monday reversed the conviction of a man who mailed copies of an angry “manifesto” to news organizations moments before driving to the 2008 Super Bowl with a loaded assault rifle to kill as many people as possible.
Local police did not charge him with a crime, since he’d only contemplated the massacre.
But federal agents retrieved copies of his mailed manifesto and charged Mr. Havelock with using the US Postal Service to mail threatening letters.
He was convicted at trial and sentenced to a year in prison.
The court said the federal statute requires that any threatening communication be addressed to a specific person. Since Havelock’s “manifesto” was addressed only generally to organizations or businesses, the charges against him must be dismissed, the appeals court said.
Federal prosecutors had argued for a broad interpretation of the federal law. In the package Havelock sent to news organizations, he wrote: “It will be swift and bloody. I will sacrifice your children upon the altar of your excess.”
He also wrote: “I will slay your children. I will shed the blood of the innocent.”
The question in the appeal was whether these statements were specific enough to trigger criminal liability for Havelock. While the statements were threatening in a general way, they were apparently not directed at any particular named parent.
Havelock’s lawyer argued that his manifesto and other self-described “random blatherings” weren’t threats at all, they were Havelock’s attempt at an explanation for what he expected would become his "suicide by cop."
The relevant statute says in part: “Whoever knowingly so deposits … any communication … addressed to any other person and containing … any threat to injure the person of the addressee or of another … shall be imprisoned not more than five years.”
“A few of Havelock’s statements appeared to be addressed to whoever read them: e.g., 'I will slay your children,' " Judge William Canby wrote for the court.
But, he added, “It is impossible to determine (and is highly unlikely) that Havelock, in the quoted phrase, was referring to any particular person whose children he was going to slay.”
In a dissent, Judge Susan Graber said Congress did not intend for the law to be read so narrowly.
“Given this breadth of coverage it is unlikely that Congress intended to differentiate … between a death threat sent expressly and directly to a living person and one mailed to a corporation that employs that person,” she wrote. “After all, both threats have exactly the same ill effect.”
Judge Graber added: “Under the majority’s interpretation, the statute would not apply to an individual who mailed a letter bearing on its outside the address, ‘Mom and Pop Grocery, Inc…’ and containing inside the warning, ‘Tomorrow I will come and shoot every one of you dead.’ "
The judge said the majority opinion would produce absurd results. Graber said the law, as interpreted by the majority, “would not prohibit … someone’s mailing a letter to ‘The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ with the threat, ‘I will hunt down and take vengeance on the judges responsible for today’s decision.’ "
Judge Canby said there are numerous other statutes prohibiting threats. “There is no need to stretch [this statute] beyond the limits of its language to reach conduct better dealt with by other statutes,” he said.