Not everyone likes or understands sarcasm, but you’d be hard pressed to find many people who think it warrants a jail sentence.
Justin Carter, 19, certainly didn't think the sarcastic remarks he made in an online gaming forum on Facebook earlier this year would land him behind bars, but that's what happened.
- Listen to the Day 6 interview with Jennifer Carter and Scott Burns.
The Texas teenager, who was 18 at the time of the posting, was arguing with another player of the video game League of Legends, when someone goaded him, saying he was "messed in the head." Carter sarcastically retorted that he was crazy, alright, and then wrote:
"I think Ima (short for "I'm going to") shoot up a kindergarten / And watch the blood of the innocent rain down / And eat the beating heart of one of them."
Carter then added "j/k" and "lol," internet and text-message speak for "just kidding" and "laugh out loud."
His comments were ill-timed, coming only two months after the mass shootings at a school in Newtown, Conn., that killed 26 people.
At least one person who read them didn't find them funny. A woman in Canada who saw the post reported Carter's remarks to police in Austin, Texas.
No weapons found in home
Police officers showed up at Carter's place of work on February 14, soon after the comments appeared, and arrested the teen, who lives in New Braunfels, a town in south-central Texas.
According to his mother, Jennifer Carter, police did not question Justin until several weeks later, and when they searched his home, did not find any weapons or evidence that he had any intent to carry out the actions he described online. They seized only his computer.
In April, Carter was officially charged with "communicating a terroristic threat." If convicted, Justin could face a prison term of up to 10 years. He had remained in jail since his arrest because his family was unable to pay the $500,000 bail set by the court, but on Thursday, an anonymous individual stepped forward to pay the bond.
Earlier, Jennifer had told Day 6 guest host Rachel Giese that her son had been held in solitary confinement because he had been assaulted repeatedly by fellow inmates and had trouble adjusting to prison life.
"He was very depressed and didn't think he'd be able to survive," she told Day 6 from Orlando, Fla., where she is currenlty living.
In a follow-up interview on Friday, after Justin's release, Day 6 reconnected with Jennifer, who described the moment her son stepped out of his cell as "one of the happiest moments" she has had in a long time.
Sarcastic tone not evident to all
Justin is currently awaiting trial, and his mother hopes that when the case eventually does go to court, the jury will see her son's comments for what they were: the sarcastic, stupid trash talk of a kid.
"It's hard for me to believe that 12 jurors could look at the evidence, which is just his statement, and think that he had the intent to cause harm or that he was capable of causing the harm that he was threatening," she said.
Jennifer says teens like her son who are used to chatting and joking with friends online assume that everyone who reads their posts is familiar with the way they speak and their personalities and can tell when they are joking.
She knows her son's characteristic intonations well and is familiar with his sarcastic manner of speaking so it's easy for her to imagine the tone in which the Facebook comments were meant, but that wouldn't have been the case for everyone who read them.
"A lot of times, I don't think that teenagers comprehend that anyone can find that kind of thing on the internet and that other people aren't going to know who you are," she said.
Free speech limits
For attorney Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys' Association in San Diego, casual threats of violence made online, whatever their intended tone, are no laughing matter.
"A lot of people thought Dylan Klebold, prior to Columbine (school shootings), was joking, and nobody told authorities, nobody told any administrators at the school, and we all know how that turned out," he told Day 6.
Although he wouldn't comment on the Carter case specifically, Burns said he is convinced police are justified in jailing someone for what they say even if they haven't done anything to indicate they plan to act on their threats.
"We can't take the risk of getting it wrong," he said.
"I still don't know why when people hit 'send,' they don't think it's going to lead to others questioning what it is they said in their threats. It will, and it does."
The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects free speech, but there are limits to this protection, Burns said.
"One of the things that is not protected is threatening to kill a number of people," he said.
He doesn't see the kind of comments made by Justin Carter and some of the other individuals recently arrested for similar online remarks as entirely harmless.
"I think something is horribly wrong when somebody gets on Facebook and says, 'I'm going to kill a bunch of people'," Burns said.
But many people do think the police have overstepped in Justin's case, and tens of thousands have signed a petition started by his mother calling for the charge against her son to be dropped and for the law governing what constitutes a terroristic threat to be changed.
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