From People vs. Roachthe Illinois Appellate Court ruled Thursday (opinion by Judge Robert Steigmann, joined by Judges Peter Cavanagh and James Knecht):
In November 2020, during a meeting with defendant at the Winnebago County Jail, defendant said [his lawyer,] Braun, “When I get out of here, I’m going to get that judge” [referring to Judge McGraw -EV]. Braun replied, “That sounds like a threat.” The defendant said, “I’m not threatening. I’m making promises.” Braun testified that the defendant was a little upset, and that Braun took the defendant’s statements seriously “based on all the information [Braun] had at the time.”
Braun alerted the judge to the threat, which led to the defendant being prosecuted for it and ultimately sentenced to two years in prison. During the investigation, the detective talked to the defendant via video:
During the first 25 minutes of the video, the defendant denied threatening McGraw. After approximately 25 minutes of filming, the detectives left the interrogation room and the defendant began speaking into the camera. Defendant expressed his anger toward McGraw, the trial attorney, and the police through a cacophony of violent profanity-laced statements, punctuated by brief digressions to say he was not a threat to anyone. Defendant’s comments to the camera continued until Witt returned to the interrogation room, at which time defendant asserted to Witt that he had not threatened McGraw.
The Court of Appeals reversed, holding that the statements fell outside the First Amendment’s “actual threats” exception, and thus were not covered by the state threats statute:
[N]Braun’s testimony is conspicuously absent from any mention of violence by the defendant, either explicit or implicit. The only detail Braun provided regarding the circumstances of Defendant’s isolated statements to Braun ((1) “[w]when I leave here, I’m going to get that judge” and (2) “I’m not threatening[,] I make promises.”) was that the accused was a little agitated when he made them.
The State relies heavily on the videotape of Witt’s conversation with defendant to explain the purpose and meaning of defendant’s statements to Braun. The State contends that in the interview defendant clarified what he meant when he told Braun he was going to take McGraw. However, that interview took place months after defendant made the statements to Braun and after defendant was charged with threatening McGraw. Furthermore, at no point in the interview did the accused clarify what his statements meant to Braun. Instead, the defendant maintained throughout that he did not threaten McGraw.
An earlier opinion of this court in Color, it is instructive. IN Color, the defendant was meeting with the public defender when he became enraged after receiving bad news regarding his case. The defendant then raised his voice, threatened to complain about the public defender to the trial judge and accused her of “selling him out and working for the state”. After the public defender told him to leave, the defendant repeatedly told her, “I’m going to get you,” pointing at her. She asked him if he was threatening her, to which he replied, “No, no. I’m not threatening you.” The paralegal then stepped between the two because of the “road”. [the defendant] stood, his mannerisms, how aggressive he was in his speech, [and] his demeanor.” The first-instance court found the defendant guilty of threatening the public defender.
On appeal, this court reversed defendant’s conviction, concluding that no reasonable trier of fact could conclude that defendant intended to physically threaten the public defender. In so ruling, this court emphasized the ambiguity of the phrase “I’m gonna you”—namely, that the phrase does not necessarily mean a threat of violence. Instead, the court noted, “[T]The victim of a prank or Machiavellian office politics might say to the perpetrator, ‘I’m going to catch you for this,’ with no intention of realizing that the retaliation will be physical. The IRS will catch you if you lie on your income tax return.” Accordingly, this Court held that the statement “I’ll catch you” was too vague and ambiguous to constitute a threat of violence.
Although the defendant’s statement in this case, that he intended to “get” McGraw, is almost identical to the defendant’s statement in Colorwe note that the evidence that provides context for the threatening nature of the statement in Color was much stronger than in this case. Here, just like in Color, the defendant’s statement was too vague to communicate anything of substance; instead, his statement requires us to speculate as to exactly what defendant threatened to do to McGraw in the first place. Without more context or additional clarifying statements, defendant’s statements do not rise to the level of a true threat….