HARTFORD, CONN. (AP) - A New Jersey blogger charged with inciting violence against Connecticut lawmakers told a jury on Friday that he was being prosecuted for exercising his free speech rights and never intended for anyone to get hurt.
Harold “Hal” Turner, 49, of North Bergen, N.J., wrote a blog posting in June 2009 in response to state legislation, withdrawn three months earlier, that would have given lay people of Roman Catholic churches more control over parish finances. Turner believed the legislation flew in the face of the constitutional doctrine of separation of church and state.
He suggested that Catholics “take up arms and put down this tyranny by force,” said government leaders should “obey the constitution or die” and said he would post officials’ home addresses. He also wrote that if authorities tried to stop his cause, “I suspect we have enough bullets to put them down too.”
Turner, who is already serving a nearly three-year prison sentence for threatening federal judges in Illinois, represented himself in the trial that began Thursday in Hartford. Jury deliberations began Friday afternoon.
Turner told the jury during his closing argument Friday that the only threat he made was against tyranny, not officials. He also argued that there was no evidence anyone got hurt or that anyone actually was incited to violence.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this case is a fraud,” Turner said. “I said some nasty things about politicians and they’re trying to use the power of the state to throw me in jail. These are the kinds of things we heard about in the former Soviet Union.”
But prosecutor Thomas Garcia said Turner’s targets testified that they were truly concerned about their safety and that Turner’s words were meant to incite violence.
“Words have power. We know that from our daily lives,” Garcia said. “They can have the power to inspire people to do good. They also have the power to inspire fear and incite others to violence. That’s the central issue and in many ways the only issue in this case.”
He accused Turner of twisting the facts and putting on a “performance” for the jury. He also reminded the jury of random acts of violence on public officials without mentioning any names.
“This isn’t a battle between big, bad government and poor, little Hal Turner,” Garcia told the jury. “Hal Turner’s the bully here.”
Two state officials testified Thursday that they had received unrelated threats before because of their jobs but that Turner’s comments went above and beyond those previous remarks.
“This was an extraordinary document that far exceeded any other threat I had ever received. I thought that this was a very real threat,” said Andrew McDonald, who was a state senator at the time of the blog post and is now Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s general counsel.
State Ethics Enforcement Officer Thomas Jones added in his testimony, “I interpreted this as people were going to be coming to my house within 24 hours with bullets and guns. … This was real. This was tangible. This was electric.”
State Capitol Police said Turner’s targets were McDonald, Jones and Michael Lawlor, a state representative at the time who is now the governor’s undersecretary for criminal justice planning. McDonald and Lawlor were co-chairmen of the legislature’s Judiciary Committee, which proposed the legislation.
Turner alleged during the trial that McDonald used the church finances bill to retaliate against the church for opposing gay marriage rights, which McDonald denied.