Sign of the Times

Tragedies don't give law enforcement carte blanche to arrest weird Americans

Tragedies don't give law enforcement carte blanche to arrest weirdos

Protesters in New York City
Protesters took to the streets in New York as part of Occupy Wall Street.

April is historically a tragic month. In 2013, the Boston Marathon bombings joined an already depressing list of American anniversaries, including the Columbine school shooting and the Branch Davidian siege.

But there’s another tragedy quietly unfolding across the country. Names like Paul Kevin Curtis, Jared Marcum and Bob Miller are poised to join the ranks of Richard Jewell and Steven J. Hatfill.

What do these men have in common? Their rights have all been trampled in the name of justice.

Jewell, you may recall, was considered the prime suspect in the 1996 Olympic bombings. He eventually was hailed as a hero. Hatfill, a former Army scientist, was thought to be behind the post-9/11 anthrax scare. He later sued over the false accusations.

  ​It’s a lot easier to dismiss the village idiot rambling in the town square than it is to decipher the veracity of an online missive.

Strangely, it almost seems un-American to focus on the lost liberty of citizens when faced with a national tragedy. Our instinct to double-down on law enforcement is a good one, but there’s a fine line between hunting down actual terrorists and arbitrarily jailing ordinary — albeit strange — Americans.

Paul Kevin Curtis, an Elvis impersonator and medical conspiracy theorist, was accused of sending letters laced with ricin to President Barack Obama and two Mississippi officials.

When police found no physical evidence of the poison or anything related to it in Curtis’ home, he was jailed anyway. The reason for his incarceration? Presumably his anti-government postings online, which had a few phrases in common with the letters purported to contain the poison.

Curtis was released from federal custody on April 23. U.S. prosecutors have dropped all the charges against him.

Admittedly, the Internet has vastly complicated the interpretation of free speech. It’s a lot easier to dismiss the village idiot rambling in the town square than it is to decipher the veracity of an online missive.

But the right to free speech was not created only to protect Girl Scouts. Its chief purpose is to protect unpopular and controversial statements.

Words that might make those in power uncomfortable are exactly the ones we should fight for. Not because we agree with those who say them, but because the ability to question your government freely is the heart of the American Dream. 

Three days after the Boston Marathon bombings, Jared Marcum, 14, wore a National Rifle Association T-shirt to middle school in West Virginia. Marcum was asked to change his shirt or turn it inside out. He refused, citing his right to free speech.

The school called the police, and the Associated Press reports the teen was charged with two crimes: “disrupting an educational process and obstructing an officer.”

 These are extraordinary times, and what we do during them counts even more.

Is it in poor taste to wear an NRA T-shirt with an image of a hunting rifle to school? Maybe. But what happens when someone in power decides your affiliation with a club is offensive? Taking away the self-expression of others is a slippery slope, and it always will be.

Take Bob Miller, for example. Miller, who is awaiting trial on a DWI charge in Kaufman County, took to Facebook after the death of district attorney Mike McLelland and his wife, Cynthia.

His post read, “There has been no mistake or coincidence concerning the murders of the two Kaufman County District Attorney’s Office officials.”

He also predicted the death of another prosecutor and described the series of high-profile murders as “acts of revenge against the tyrannical, unjust, Pit Bull style treatment of every poor soul damned to do business in the Kaufman County Courthouse.”

Those are strong, strange words, and it certainly doesn’t make me like the guy. But it also doesn’t make him a murderer.

Eric Williams and his wife, Kim, have since been charged in the murders of McLellands and assistant district attorney Mark Hasse. Kim Williams admitted the plot to police, identifying herself as an accomplice and her husband as the shooter.

Meanwhile, Miller has been sitting in the Kaufman County jail since April 4 on a trumped-up charge of making a terroristic threat. A spokesman for Kaufman County said no court dates have been set for Miller. In fact, his case hasn't even been filed with the court system. It's been three weeks since he was arrested.

Our jails already are overcrowded. No need to go locking up every Facebook user who makes outlandish statements en lieu of a $1 million bond.

If there's evidence that Miller was somehow involved in the plot to kill Hasse and the McLellands, then that information should be presented before a judge. If authorities have nothing more than a rambling Facebook post, then $1 million seems a pretty high price to pay for one's freedom. 

These are extraordinary times, and what we do during them counts even more. In the wake of tragedies, innocent until proven guilty gets thrown by the wayside, but due process was created with criminals in mind.

When the charge is horrific, it is all the more important that we let the wheels of justice turn smoothly and not jerk the emergency brake. If we can’t trust our justice system with the most important issues of our day, then we can’t trust it at all.