Although there can be a fine line between prosecution and persecution, this line is not often crossed in the United States. Well, that line was thoroughly trampled over in March when an 18-year-old boy was charged with making "terroristic threats" for a Facebook comment that, though immature and disgusting, was almost certainly sarcastic.
Because his family is unable to pay the $500,000 bond, the now-19-year-old teen has been imprisoned for four months, suffering from physical (and perhaps sexual) abuse and psychologically deteriorating to such a degree that he is now on suicide watch. Police in Comal County, Texas charged Justin Carter with the third-degree felony because of this comment:
"I think Ima shoot up a kindergarten / And watch the blood of the innocent rain down/ And eat the beating heart of one of them."
Taken alone, the post is obviously disconcerting. But a little context shows that the government is ruining this kid's life because of a mind-boggling overreaction. Let's examine the evidence.
First, Carter made his comments while arguing with a fellow gamer after he finished playing the multiplayer computer game "League of Legends." This game, which a few of my friends at Duke played, is known for its competitive ethos that fuels conversations that can become quite toxic. While the comment seems extreme to us, in the online gaming world Carter's post unfortunately is not too far from the norm. Indeed, if police began charging every immature gamer who made a "terroristic threat" over a day-long gaming session on League of Legends or Call of Duty, our court system would be clogged to the brim.
Second, Carter did not make the comment in isolation. Rather, he made it after arguing with a fellow gamer who called him "crazy." To most rational people, this alone suggests that Carter's response was nothing more than (extremely distasteful) sarcasm. If Carter's parents are to be believed, Carter even followed up his comments with "JK."
Third, after a thorough search and investigation the police found absolutely zero evidence of ill intent. There were no weapons, no attack plans, no suspicious internet searches, no weird diary entries — nothing. Indeed, the Canadian stranger who reported Carter for his comments didn't even know him, and friends and family who actually do know Carter maintain that there is nothing to indicate Carter was ever a threat.
Now I could understand it if the police questioned Carter; but arresting him is excessive. Indeed, the context surrounding the comment negates any reasonable probable cause the police could have claimed in making an arrest.
If convicted, Carter could face up to 10 years in prison in what to me seems like a massive miscarriage of justice. In addition, Carter could be classified as a felon and terrorist for the rest of his life. If so, he would likely be stigmatized, isolated, and prevented from achieving a well-paying job upon release from prison.
What Carter said on Facebook was obviously stupid. But there is not nearly enough evidence that what he said was made with any criminal intent at all. I fear that while previously Carter was nothing more than a harmless gamer, after being abused by the state in such a manner he might come out of prison full of bitterness and hatred. It is time to stop subjecting this kid to physical and psychological torture.
Until he has his day in court, there is only one right thing to do, and it is glaringly obvious: Release Justin Carter.