The hit TV show “Breaking Bad” and its dark plotlines played an outsized role in a federal courtroom in Washington this week in the case of a Georgetown sophomore accused of turning his dorm room into a laboratory for the deadly poison ricin.
Lawyers argued over whether Daniel Milzman, a pre-med sophomore, made the powdery substance to poison someone — or to take his own life. In making the case that Milzman should remain behind bars, prosecutors have tried to connect Milzman’s intentions with his statement to authorities that he learned about the lethal toxin from his favorite show.
Ricin makes appearances in a number of “Breaking Bad” episodes throughout its five-season run on AMC. The show’s main character Walter White – a chemistry teacher turned meth manufacturer — creates ricin to try to poison two drug kingpins, but is unsuccessful.
In the last season, White slips ricin into the Stevia sweetener an associate uses in her tea. In another episode, he opines on its lethal benefits.
“Ricin. It’s an extremely effective poison. It’s toxic in small doses also fairly easy to overlook in an autopsy,” White tells his drug-dealing partner Jesse Pinkman.
In the case of the Georgetown student, defense attorneys have said Milzman was a troubled 19-year-old struggling with depression. He created the ricin, his lawyers said, because he wanted to hide his suicide plans from his family. If he became ill from the substance, no one would know that he had killed himself.
But the federal prosecutor argued that Milzman’s statements about “Breaking Bad” suggested otherwise. She told the judge that the show’s protagonist produced ricin not to commit suicide, but to kill someone else. A friend said Milzman was such a big fan of the show he knew the name of each episode by heart.
Chief Judge Richard W. Roberts questioned why the government had not introduced its theory before a lower court judge at a hearing one day earlier. Law enforcement officials were apparently slow to recognize the potential significance of Milzman’s interest in the show.
“I was not as familiar with the show then as I am today,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Maia Miller.
Later in the hearing, Miller tried to connect the show with vitriolic Facebook messages Milzman sent to a fellow Georgetown student in late January. Friends said Milzman had a falling out with the man, and Milzman’s lawyer said it was a “two-way street.”
In his posts to the other student, Milzman wrote, “You are the worst person in the world.”
“You would be more useful to the world if you were chemically dis-incorporated and the elements that composed your body were sold to laboratories.”
In the courtroom — and in a footnote in the government’s filing – the prosecutor pointed out that one of the show’s main characters chemically dismembers an adversary after killing him. In the first season, the character, Pinkman, uses acid to dissolve a body of a former drug-dealing accomplice.
Roberts, who will decide on Monday whether Milzman remains in custody, said he was troubled by the Facebook messages and what he called the “drastic language.” He asked Milzman’s lawyer to respond to the allegation that his client was inspired by “Breaking Bad.”
“Your honor, I don’t watch the same television shows as the government,” said defense attorney Danny Onorato.
A handful of crimes have echoed “Breaking Bad” in recent years.
Last year, a Washington man allegedly strangled his girlfriend and attempted to dispose of her body in a bathtub filled with acid. Investigators reportedly found an episode of “Breaking Bad” with a similar plotline in the man’s DVD player.
The police chief of Kansas City, Mo., reported in 2010 a rise in blue-tinted meth, which he said may have been imitation of the “blue sky” meth created on the TV show.