Nearly four long years after his arrest, a New Braunfels teen will finally get his day in court.
It won’t happen until February 20 but Justin Carter’s attorneys say that they are happy about the setting and ready for jurors to hear their story.
Attorneys Donald Flanary and Chad Van Brunt are representing Carter in what they call a frightening case in which sarcastic taunting after an online gaming session led to a felony indictment for terroristic threats.
“He's going to be able to look the jury in the eye and say 'Hey, I'm sorry. It was a joke. I wasn't threatening,’” Flanary said.
The facts of the case do not appear to be in dispute. Back in 2013, Carter admitted to investigators that he had made some snarky remarks in a discussion thread with some friends. His attorneys characterize the exchange as brief and harmless.
Flanary says that the conversation lasted less than 20 seconds and had fewer characters than a Tweet, but someone who saw the exchange grabbed a screen shot of the conversation and passed it on to law enforcement.
Because the thread mentioned a non-specific threat against school children, investigators came knocking.
“They came to him and said, ‘Why did you say this?’ and he said 'I was joking. I was fighting with people online that were making fun of me and I was making fun of them back and we were yelling at each other and saying mean things to each other online. That's what happened. It was not real. We were joking. I'm sorry that it offended anyone.'” Flanary described.
Van Brunt said that Carter did something that is a staple of discourse on the internet.
“Nowadays, people say the craziest stuff. Every single day we have people in all walks of life saying the most inflammatory things. Our politicians engage in this sort of thing now and it’s the marketplace of ideas, and we can’t constrain that,” Van Brunt argued.
Both attorneys said that Carter has no criminal record and has never owned weapons, but his words were enough to send him on a long legal nightmare.
“It makes him a second class citizen without even having a trial, for four years," Flanary said. "He can't get a job, not a decent one, he can’t go on the internet like everybody else in the world, yet he's not had his day in court and he's not been convicted of anything. It's not a bomb threat. It's not a threat against a school. It's a joke between friends. That's obvious."
The attorneys say that, for parents, the case is an eerie warning about how things can go wrong fast for young people on the internet.
They said that the most troubling aspect of this case is that it could easily happen to anyone.
"The government is watching. Whether you're a child or whether you're an adult, the government is watching everything you say," Flanary said.
The attorneys agree that they believe the citizens of Comal County will be able to do right by Carter.
“We'll be dealing with citizens, we'll be dealing with jurors. We won't be dealing with police officers that are trying to cover up their actions, and we will get a jury of 12 people and they'll obviously see he was joking,” Flanary said.
If he were to be convicted on the felony charge, the punishment range for Carter is up to 10 years in prison and up to a $10,000 fine.
His attorneys are representing him on a pro bono basis and Carter is free on bond after an anonymous benefactor put up a $500,000 cashier’s check to secure his release.