- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 18, 2016

For two weeks Nheru Littleton has been held in a Michigan jail on $1 million bond, awaiting a chance to fight the accusation he made a threat of terrorism — a criminal charge that a local Detroit prosecutor already declined to bring due to lack of evidence and that civil rights advocates see as overkill that could chill free speech.

The threats in question were posts the 40-year-old auto factory worker is accused of making on Facebook in July, among them praise to a lone sniper who days earlier had killed three police officers in Dallas.

“To those sniper’s in Texas, I commend your bravery and actions!!! #blacklivesmatter,” prosecutors said one post read.

“All lives can’t matter until Black Lives matter!!!! Kill all white cops!!!” read another.

The posts were disturbing, to say the least, according to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy. But ultimately the Facebook messages were deemed too vague — they didn’t meet the standard of a “true” criminal threat, and Ms. Worthy’s office declined to bring criminal charges.

“There is no evidence the suspect took any action himself, or did anything to facilitate the killing of white officers,” Ms. Worthy wrote in a statement issued in August explaining her decision.

That’s where the case ended, at least until Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette got involved. The state’s top prosecutor assigned investigators to review the case and announced this month that two felony charges — making a terroristic threat and using a computer to commit a crime — would be brought.

“A threat to law enforcement officers is a threat to us all,” Mr. Schuette said at the time. “This is a fight worth fighting. We cannot allow it to be open season on police.”

Mr. Littleton was arrested Oct. 5, and though he had remained free since police released him from custody after questioning him in July, his bond was set at $1 million. It’s an amount the former Marine and his family haven’t been able to pay.

For the last two weeks, attorney Leon Weiss said Mr. Littleton has used accrued leave from his factory job to offset his time in jail. But he worries that if his client remains in jail much longer, the father of two will lose his job.

District Judge Michael McNally declined to lower the bond during a hearing last week. Mr. Weiss believes the high bond was set by the presiding judge “as a show of support for police officers,” not because his client constitutes a real threat.

“Even if something is disturbing and offensive, there is a certain latitude in this country for saying things,” Mr. Weiss said. “I’m worried about the government, instead of acting out of strict prosecutorial and ethical constraints, if they are trying to make an example out of somebody.”

A spokeswoman for Mr. Schuette said it was a police captain, not prosecutors, who argued for bond at Mr. Littleton’s arraignment.

Detroit Police Chief James Craig previously defended his decision to pursue charges in the case, saying that in a climate in which police officers are being targeted for violence, he could not sit idly by when threats are made.

But civil rights activists, who believe Ms. Worthy correctly interpreted the law in deciding there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate charges, are concerned that the attorney general’s decision to press charges could be taken as a threat by those who seek to speak out against police.

“Even if you think this person went over the line, what kind off message is the attorney general trying to send to the public at large?” said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “Do we have to be concerned that if we are very critical of law enforcement, that we are going to get a knock on the door and find ourselves in jail?”

‘An intimidation tactic’

Mr. Korobkin said the case raises the question of whether the attorney general and police would have responded the same way to a threat allegation if the posts had targeted a group other than police officers.

“If the answer is no, they would not have been handled the same way, then we have a very serious First Amendment violation,” Mr. Korobkin said. “You cannot punish more harshly speech about one topic that any other topic.”

Mr. Littleton’s difficulties affording bail also highlight a widespread practice that civil rights advocates say disproportionately affects poor people of color.

“We keep them there for extended periods of time knowing people cannot afford that at all,” said L’lerret Ailith, communications manager for the Black Youth Project 100, a national activism group. “This is definitely an intimidation tactic.”

Denzel McCampbell of the Detroit chapter of the Black Youth Project 100 said there is concern among local activists that those who speak out against police or local authorities are being targeted for harsher punishment.

“It looks like there is an effort to target protests and those who are speaking out on social injustices and to make an example of them. It’s a scary thing,” he said.

Mr. McCampbell cited charges filed against individuals who chained themselves to the doors of a police precinct in protests this year, as well as those charged after blocking trucks sent to shut off water to low-income families that were past due on bills.

Concern over Facebook posts comes at a time that relationships between police and communities they serve — particularly minority communities — are strained. Activists increasingly are speaking out against perceived police bias and brutality, while police officers are concerned that protesters are encouraging anti-police sentiment and, in turn, violent attacks on officers.

Mr. Littleton was one of four men arrested in July by Detroit police in connection with messages on social media threatening police. The Wayne County prosecutors office is still reviewing charges against one of the men, but ruled in the two other cases that charges could not be supported by evidence.

The attorney general thus far has not brought charges in those cases, and a spokeswoman declined to comment on them.

Mr. Littleton is due next in court on Thursday, when a preliminary hearing is scheduled. Mr. Weiss said his next opportunity to challenge his client’s bond will likely occur after the case is handed up to the Wayne County Circuit Court, which handles felony charges.

While Mr. Littleton wasn’t engaged in any organized protest when the messages in question were posted on Facebook — according to disclosures made during Ms. Worthy’s investigation, he admitted writing them while on vacation and intoxicated — activists worry that the actions taken by police in response to this case will have a chilling effect on free speech.

But the statements were made “clearly in the context of a political statement,” Mr. Korobkin said.

“When we have politicians deciding on their own who should be punished for that, that’s when our rights are most vulnerable,” he said.

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