SAN FRANCISCO -- A federal appeals court on Tuesday overturned the conviction of a man who posted Internet messages threatening Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign.
A divided three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that Walter Bagdasarian's violent and racist screeds against Obama were "repugnant" but not criminal. The court also said it was obvious the San Diego man wasn't planning to attack the candidate and that the postings were protected by Bagdasarian's free speech rights.
Bagdasarian was convicted in 2009 of two felony counts of threatening a major presidential candidate.
Bagdasarian posted several messages to a Yahoo Finance message board in October 2008, including one that called Obama a racial epithet and another that said "he will have a 50 cal in the head soon" - a reference to a .50 caliber gun.
A retired Air Force officer forwarded the postings to the Secret Service. Yahoo provided Bagdasarian's subscriber information to investigators, who raided his house and seized six guns and a hard drive containing an email with similar sentiments.
Bagdasarian admitted posting the messages, but said he was drunk and joking.
He waived his right to a jury trial. District Judge Marilyn L. Huff found him guilty and sentenced him to 60-days in a half-way home.
But the appeals panel said no "reasonable person" could have taken seriously Bagdasarian's posts.
"The evidence is not sufficient to support a conclusion that a reasonable person who read the postings within or without the relevant context would have understood either to mean that Bagdasarian threatened to injure or kill the presidential candidate," Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the majority.
The Los Angeles Times reports:
"When our law punishes words, we must examine the surrounding circumstances to discern the significance of those words' utterance, but must not distort or embellish their plain meaning so that the law may reach them," said the 2-1 ruling in which Chief Judge Alex Kozinski joined but Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw dissented.
"That Mr. Bagdasarian later made a public apology does not detract from his intent at the time; his intent to threaten harm to candidate Obama generated fear for the candidate's safety and mobilized the Secret Service, which tracked Mr. Bagdasarian down," Wardlaw wrote. "Mr. Bagdasarian did not come forward; the Secret Service had to locate him."