by Peter Hall
(PENNSYLVANIA, USA) Anthony Douglas Elonis' alleged Facebook threats to attack Dorney Park, kill his wife and slaughter a class of kindergartners scared some and terrified others, a federal prosecutor said Tuesday.
But when a jury weighs the evidence against Elonis, it won't have to consider whether he intended to threaten those people, but rather that he knew it could be perceived as a threat.
Testimony in Elonis' trial on five counts of making threats under the federal cyber stalking law began Monday, with FBI Special Agent Denise Stevens explaining how Elonis attracted the agency's attention.
Elonis, 28, was arrested in December after authorities executed a search warrant at his parents' home on Schwab Avenue, Lower Saucon Township.
Shortly after Elonis was fired in October 2010 from his job at Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom in South Whitehall Township for making a Facebook post that his co-workers perceived as threatening, the park's chief of security, Daniel Hall, contacted the FBI.
He was concerned, Stevens said, about Elonis' subsequent Facebook messages under the user name Tone Dougie describing himself as a nuclear bomb, and warning that his employers had "[expletive] with the timer."
Another message, which included a "disclaimer" that the words were fictitious lyrics and an exercise of the constitutional right to free expression, described Elonis' fantasy of a pair of twin-engine Cessna aircraft crashing into the amusement park in an apparent reference to the 9/11 World Trade Center attack.
Questioned by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherri A. Stephan, Stevens said the disclaimer, and similar language in a post Elonis made about killing his estranged wife, did little to ease her worries.
"To me, it made them almost more threatening," Stevens said.
Stevens read each of Elonis' messages from Facebook screen shots displayed on TV screens for the jurors.
In a Nov. 6 post about his wife, Elonis wrote it was illegal, under the terms of a protection-from-abuse order, to say he wanted to kill her. He noted it was also illegal to describe the best way to launch a mortar attack on her home.
In a Nov. 15 post, Elonis wrote: "Fold up your PFA and put it in your pocket. Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?" It ended with a declaration that he had enough explosives to "take care of the State Police and the Sheriff's Department."
The next day, Elonis wrote, "That's it, I've had about enough. I'm checking out and making a name for myself. Enough elementary schools in a ten mile radius to initiate the most heinous school shooting ever imagined. And hell hath no fury like a crazy man in a Kindergarten class. The only question is which one?"
Stevens, who had been monitoring Elonis' Facebook posts, alerted the Lower Saucon police and surrounding school districts, she said.
In his opening argument, Elonis' attorney Benjamin Cooper asked the jury of seven women and five men to consider the context of Elonis' writing. He had recently lost his job and his wife had filed for divorce and taken away their two children.
"Mr. Elonis felt the impact of all that and he wrote about it in this medium called Facebook," Cooper said, noting that rap music contains similar violent imagery.
In an August court filing asking U.S. District Judge Lawrence Stengel to throw out the charges against Elonis, Cooper argued they are unconstitutional because they criminalize speech protected by the First Amendment.
He argued that Elonis' Facebook posts don't fall into one of the narrow exceptions to constitutionally protected speech called "true threats," in which the writer intends to place the victim in fear of bodily harm or death.
Rather, they were crude lyrical expressions of his frustration about life.
In response, Stephan wrote that the federal law prohibiting the transmission of threats -- the cyber stalking law -- doesn't require the government prove that a writer intended to make a threat, only that he knowingly made a statement that made the recipient fearful.
In a ruling from the bench Monday, Stengel agreed.
The trial is scheduled to continue Wednesday with testimony from Elonis' wife and Dorney Park employees.