E-mails sent to Va. Tech students were true threats
A Nevada man who sent e-mail messages to two students who had been stalked by Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho before his April 2007 rampage uttered true threats, a federal appeals court panel has ruled in U.S. v. Napa.
Johnmarlo B. Napa allegedly idolized Cho and, on the first anniversary of the massacre, sent an electronic message, from the address firstname.lastname@example.org, to two students — known in court papers as H.H. and C.L. — who had accused Cho of stalking them.
Napa’s message quoted Cho’s infamous rantings that he sent to NBC News in a videotape:
“You have never felt a single ounce of pain your whole life. Did you want to inject as much misery in our lives as you can just because you can? I didn’t have to do this. I could have left. I could have fled. But, No, I will no longer run. It’s not for me. For my children, for my brothers and sisters that you fucked. I did it for them.”
Napa included a hyperlink in his message to his MySpace page full of information about Cho, including photos, a ballad glorifying Cho’s acts and similar material. Next to one photo of Cho was the caption, “Continue the Rampage.”
When H.H. and C.L. received the messages, they became terrified and contacted the police. The Federal Bureau of Investigation traced the messages to Napa, who eventually admitted that he sent them. Prosecutors charged Napa with violating federal law 18 U.S.C. 875(c), which provides:
“Whoever transmits in interstate or foreign commerce any communication containing any threat to kidnap any person or any threat to injure the person of another, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.”
Napa entered a conditional guilty plea, reserving the right to challenge the charges and the lower court’s refusal to dismiss his charges. He argued that his e-mails did not constitute true threats. On March 19, a unanimous three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed. The panel noted that the standard for evaluating whether speech crosses the line into unprotected true threat is whether “an ordinary, reasonable person who is familiar with the context of the communication would interpret it as a threat of injury.”
The panel noted that any ordinary and reasonable person would have deemed those e-mail messages as threats. The statements were specifically directed at H.H. and C.L., the statement on the MySpace page was “Continue the Rampage” and the return e-mail address was email@example.com — factors that “would indicate to an ordinary, reasonable person that Napa planned on avenging Cho’s death by committing future violent acts, and the threat of such violence was imminent, and not conditional.”