The Facebook Comment That Ruined a Life

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Credit: Josh Huskin

Credit: Josh Huskin

A young man’s violent threat on Facebook lands him in jail, and limbo.

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.

Prosecutors have failed to produce the entire thread containing Carter’s alleged threat, according to his attorney, Don Flanary.

Prosecutors have failed to produce the entire thread containing Carter’s alleged threat, according to his attorney, Don Flanary.

One of the comments appears to be a response to an earlier comment in which someone called Carter crazy. Carter’s retort was: “I’m fucked in the head alright, I think I’ma SHOOT UP A KINDERGARTEN [sic].”

Carter followed with “AND WATCH THE BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT RAIN DOWN.”

When a person writing under the profile name “Hannah Love” responded with “i hope you [burn]in hell you fucking prick,” Carter put the cherry on top: “AND EAT THE BEATING HEART OF ONE OF THEM.” (The Austin police officer who wrote up the subsequent report noted: “all caps to emphasize his anger or rage.” )

That’s when someone 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. 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.

Police records allege that, upon being booked into Bexar County Jail, Carter stated, “I guess what you post on Facebook matters.”

He had no idea.

When officers searched Carter’s home, Flanary says, they did not find the hallmarks of a lunatic.

“They found no guns in his house,” Flanary says from his San Antonio office. “They found no bomb-making materials.” He follows this up with a dash of sarcasm that’s not a far stretch from the rhetorical flourishes that put his client in peril: “They didn’t find The Anarchist Cookbook. … They didn’t find, you know, a bunch of newspaper clippings on the wall — conspiracy theories, with yarn from one place to another. They didn’t find pentagrams and candles. He wasn’t listening to Judas Priest.”

Flanary’s explanation for this is simple: His client is not a nut. But Flanary can’t say the same for the jam his client’s in. “This whole thing is totally and completely bonkers.”

In the absence of any other evidence mentioned in Comal County prosecutor Laura Bates‘ filings, it’s hard to disagree. Despite repeated calls, the Houston Press was unable to speak with Bates or anyone else in the Comal County District Attorney’s Office — a receptionist told us that the only person authorized to speak to the media was District Attorney Jennifer Tharp herself, and she was unavailable.

One of the most striking things about the evidence so far tendered by the state is what’s missing: the entire thread — which wasn’t on Carter’s Facebook page — containing the damning comments.

“The state tells us Facebook didn’t give it to them,” Flanary says. He’s unsuccessfully tried to find “Hannah Love,” the only other profile included in the cell-phone screenshot; at this point, it’s still unclear whether “Hannah Love” is the anonymous Canadian tipster.

Flanary believes it’s paramount that if someone is criminally charged on the basis of his words, a jury needs to see all the words. In this case, that includes whatever comment precipitated Carter’s hyperbolic rant.

Read the rest of this unbelievable story at the Dallas Observer.

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