Md. judge tosses threat charges against ‘Joker’

A judge on Tuesday dropped charges against a Crofton man who police say likened himself to the comic book villain the Joker last year and threatened to blow up colleagues at a Prince George’s County business.

Neil Prescott, 29, had been charged with using a phone to “threaten, harass or annoy.” His reference to the Joker came less than a week after the July 20 massacre at a Colorado movie theater showing the most recent Batman film, “The Dark Knight Rises.”

Prince George’s County District Court Judge Patrice E. Lewis ruled that Prescott could have been charged with one of the three — threatening, harassing or annoying — or all of the above, but not one or the other.

Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks said she would review whether to refile charges. But mostly, police and prosecutors lamented that Maryland had no better charge available than “misuse of a telephone” — a misdemeanor — to punish what they characterized as a threat of mass murder. Maryland is one of seven states that does not specify a threat of mass violence as a specific crime.

“We respect the judge’s decision,” said Alsobrooks, who has lobbied for a stricter law. “If we had had the proper statute, we would have never been in this situation to begin with.”


Neil E. Prescott is seen in an undated photo. (Courtesy Mike Cochran/Associated Press)

William Brennan, Prescott’s attorney, disagreed. He said the language police and prosecutors chose in the charging documents was inconsistent with case law that requires authorities to specify a particular charge.

More broadly, he said the case showed criminal prosecution is not always the right answer when authorities are concerned about someone’s mental health.

“The police have a right to investigate, but it doesn’t mean they have to prosecute every case when someone’s having a hard time,” Brennan said. Prescott’s statement about the Joker “certainly wasn’t a viable threat; it wasn’t a crime.”

In court documents, county police and prosecutors alleged that Prescott had threatened to kill colleagues at the Capitol Heights branch of Pitney Bowes when a supervisor called to fire him from his position as a subcontractor.

“I am a Joker. I’m gonna load my guns and blow up everybody,” Prescott said, according to authorities and court documents.

Prescott’s threatening language came less than a week after 12 people were killed and 58 were wounded in the movie theater rampage in Aurora, Colo.

And authorities said Prescott had the means to carry out an attack after they raided his apartment and found more than 20 rifles, shotguns and pistols and 40 steel boxes containing eight different types of ammunition.

Prescott, however, turned out to be a licensed firearm collector. And Alsobrooks said the state lacked the right laws on the books to charge the crime correctly.

In the county’s Mental Health Court on Tuesday, Brennan made the technical argument that the charging documents failed to specify exactly which crime in the statute Prescott had been charged with.

The part of the statute in play makes it a crime to use a phone to “threaten, harass or annoy,” language that was used in the charging document and that exists verbatim in state statute. Prosecutors argued that the language should be read together as one crime.

Brennan said that if that was the case, the charging document should have used “and” instead of “or.”

After several minutes of back and forth on the legal implications of using conjunctive versus disjunctive conjunctions, Judge Lewis sided with Prescott’s defense attorney.

“The state has a duty to select . . . which criminal act” applies in the case, Judge Lewis said.

The lack of specificity, she said, essentially left Prescott unable to prepare a proper defense.

Prescott was released to live with his parents last summer. He voluntarily entered an in-patient mental health facility for about three weeks, and followed up with out-patient visits and medication, court records show.

He was required to check in repeatedly with the county’s mental health court.

Alsobrooks said she hoped Prescott had benefited from the mental health treatment.

It will be up to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, she said, which seized Prescott’s firearms, to determine whether they will be returned to him.

Aaron Davis covers D.C. government and politics for The Post and wants to hear your story about how D.C. works — or how it doesn’t.
Stephanie McCrummen is a national reporter for The Washington Post. Before that, she was the paper’s East Africa bureau chief. She’s also written about the suburban housing boom and education reform, among other subjects.
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