People, Let Me Tell You ‘Bout Your Worst Friend

Tired of the endless political posts on Facebook?  It could be worse. Much worse. With apologies to the late Harry Nilsson (and Bill Bixby), imagine if your Facebook best friend posted something like this:

Hey, those people that you saw on the news killing cops? Yeah, they worked for me. They were confidential informants, so I’m glad they’re dead. But more importantly, I head up a the local group of anarchists and we are going to blow up the courthouse, and kill some cops and judges. We have explosives and a massive arsenal. We will accomplish this no matter the cost!

You would be pretty horrified, right? Not everybody-I-went-to-high-school-with-is-so-old-now horrified, I mean legitimately horrified. That’s essentially what the Samuel Bradbury did in 2014, according to yesterday’s 7th Circuit opinion. I’ve paraphrased his diatribe in my example to starve it of any additional notoriety, but the essentials are there: (1) a shout out to recent, public, violent crimes, and (2) voicing an intent to take similar violent actions (3) against law enforcement and judicial officers.

Then, in the comment section, responding to a question from a friend, Bradbury explained that the entry was “complete satire . . .. This is simply a big mind game and satirical joke. . . . [I]t’s made to get you to think.” Though he deleted the message soon afterwards, the police received screenshots and an investigation followed.

The investigation led to Bradbury’s arrest and a search of his bedroom in his parents’ home. (That Bradbury still lived with his parents is easily the least shocking part of this story.) In the bedroom, police found thermite and magnesium, which probably means Bradbury is either really creepy or enjoys underwater welding in his spare time. Still, the defense must have been partially successful. After a trial, Bradbury was only convicted of maliciously conveying false information, which he appealed.

In any jury trial, the judge gives a set of instructions to the jury members. Think of them as answers to the Frequently Asked Questions the jury may have. These instructions often provide specific definitions of some of the terms used by the lawyers and the judge. In this case, the parties tasseled over the judge’s definition of maliciously. On appeal, Bradbury argued that the definition was too broad and would’ve allowed the jury to convict him even if the jury thought he was joking. But whether Bradbury intended to cause physical harm begs the question: when is a threat that puts people in fear or apprehension itself a criminal “harm”? The Court approved the trial court judge’s definition of maliciously, upholding Bradbury’s conviction:

To make a threat . . . is both intentional and malicious—intentional because [it is] deliberate and malicious because [it is] calculated to inspire fear and provoke a possibly costly response—even if the threatener doesn’t intend to carry out the threat. . . . Most hoaxes are harmless, but a hoax based on a threat of harm is criminalized by 18 U.S.C. Sec. 844(e) . . . even if the harm that ensues is fright rather than physical injury.