Texas man faces decade in prison over Facebook comments

The Houston Press has the latest on the troubling story of Justin Carter, who one year ago was arrested, jailed and charged with a felony for a few comments he posted to Facebook.

Approximately one hour after Justin Carter posted a sarcastic comment on a Facebook thread, his life began to ­unravel.

The first reaction occurred behind the scenes, in another country. The 18-year-old Carter had no way of knowing that, while he did grunt work at a drapery shop in San Antonio, a person in Canada saw his comments — posted 60 days after the Sandy Hook school-shooting tragedy inNewtown, Connecticut — freaked out and initiated a 24-hour chain reaction of insanity that would wind up with Carter facing 10 years in prison.

Carter’s comments were part of a duel between dorks, and may have had something to do with a game with strong dork appeal called League of Legends. But the actual details and context of the online exchange are, in the eyes of Texas authorities, unimportant. Prosecutors say they don’t have the entire thread — instead, they have three comments on a cell-phone screenshot . . .

[S]omeone in Canada — an individual as yet unidentified in court records — notified local authorities. Because Carter’s profile listed him as living in Austin, the Canadians sent the tip to the Austin Police Department. Along with a cell-phone screenshot of part of the thread and a link to Carter’s Facebook page, the tipster provided this narrative: “This man, Justin Carter, made a number of threats on Facebook to shoot up a class of kindergartners…He also made numerous comments telling people to go shoot themselves in the face and drink bleach. The threats to shoot the children were made approximately an hour ago.”

The information was forwarded to the Austin Regional Intelligence Center, an information clearinghouse for law enforcement agencies in Travis, Hays and Williams counties.

Center personnel ran Carter’s name, found either a driver’s license or a state ID card and discovered that the address listed was “within 100 yards” of Wooldridge Elementary School.

You can click through to read the comments in question. Yes, they’re vivid and harsh. They’re also pretty clearly just a kid talking trash. Perhaps they were disturbing enough that they ought to have been investigated. But at some point, the adults in the room need to step up and act like . . . well, adults.

Instead, they’re ruining this guy’s life.

 Based on a Travis County prosecutor’s belief that there was probable cause to charge Carter with a third-degree terroristic threat — which carries a penalty of two to 10 years — a judge issued an arrest warrant. U.S. marshals traced Carter to the drapery shop in San Antonio, where he worked, and handcuffed the cherub-faced, brown-haired teen. Until that point, his only brush with the law was a temporary restraining order two years earlier.

After his booking into the Bexar County Jail, authorities discovered that he actually lived in New Braunfels — Comal County. After his transfer there, his bond was increased from $250,000 to half a million dollars.

According to Carter’s attorney, Don Flanary, the 18-year-old suffered brutal attacks in the Comal County Jail during the four months he was held there.

Comal County prosecutor Laura Bates and Comal County District Attorney Jennifer Tharp are pushing the charge despite the fact that they don’t even have the entire comment thread to provide context. They’ve also apparently found nothing else to incriminate him. They found no guns, no bombs or bomb-making materials, no written plan of attack, really no indication at all that the comments were anything more than a bad sense of humor, or just bad judgment.

Still, Carter spent months in jail. While he was there, his attorney says he was beaten and sexually assaulted. And he’s still looking at up to 10 years in prison. The fact that the prosecutors at one point offered him a plea bargain with an eight-year sentence suggests they plan to put him away for as long as the law will allow.

It also suggests an utter lack of discretion and sense of propriety among the law enforcement officials in Comal County.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · February 13