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Federal Prosecutors Run Amok: joke about Bush lands eccentric in prison

From: Connecticut Law Tribune
Date: 07 Dec 2002


Connecticut Law Tribune

September 16, 2002

Forget The Biblical Allusions; Crucified For Crazy Talk

By Norm Pattis

I don't know which is more frightening: The fact that a South Dakota man was convicted of the crime of threatening the president by talking about a "burning bush," or that federal prosecutors pursued the charges.

It took a federal jury in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, little more than an hour to find Richard Humphreys guilty of threatening to kill or harm the president. What did he do to face five years of federal time and a hefty fine?

Humphreys, who calls himself Israel, views himself as a latter-day prophet cut from an Old Testament mold. It seems Israel was spreading the word one March day in Sioux Falls. "Don't be surprised if you see George Bush on TV and someone runs by and throws something on him and lights a match," Israel sneered. God had once before spoken through a burning bush, he noted. It turns out that quasi-President George W. Bush was scheduled to be in Sioux Falls the very next day. After stewing about Israel's comments for the better part of a day, a bartender called federal authorities. Call it a time-delayed hue and cry.

In moved a federal SWAT team, and Humphreys was taken into custody. He was initially charged with larceny when law-enforcement officers serendipitously learned that he had bounced a check at a local hotel. A search of his truck revealed a note, presumably written to himself, that did, indeed, sound threatening.

Humphreys elected to represent himself at trial, no doubt seeking to avoid a lawyer's dilution of the message he hoped to convey. Humphreys is no stranger to federal prosecutors.

In 1996, he was arrested for trespassing in a synagogue. He possessed a letter stating that he wanted to talk to President Clinton. The topic? Religious persecution.

In July 1998, he called police to report an assassination plot against President Clinton. That same month, he also was arrested for impersonating a police officer. President Clinton and the first lady were going to kill themselves, he warned, because the world's end was at hand.

And in September 1998, Humphreys wrote a letter to the U.S. Attorney in Florida to report plots against the pope, President Clinton and other public figures.

It must have been quite a trial out there in the bad lands.

"Religious bigotry and hatred of the Secret Service caused them to arrest me without probable cause," Humphreys said in his opening statement. His stand-by counsel, a public defender, probably went through a roll of Tums before the opening ended.

"It wasn't a joke. It wasn't funny. Simply put, it was a threat," said federal prosecutor Michael Ridgeway in his closing argument.

I suppose those of us who take the First Amendment at face value and who can distinguish the indicative and subjunctive moods should take heart: Humphreys wasn't held incommunicado, whisked off to a detention center and tried without the benefit of the rule of law. It was a public trial.

But who was convicted? And of what? A peripatetic wanderer skirting the edge of sanity, or so it appears, evoked an ancient religious symbol. He spoke of things that could happen. He evoked moral imagery as crude and obscurantist as the administration's reliance on "axis of evil."

Perhaps the trial transcript contains more damning gems. But as reported, the case speaks poorly of the Justice Department's priorities. There are war hoops in Washington, signs that al Qaeda is alive and well, and reports that cells of terrorists populate the world. How do we respond? We prosecute a man for using a double entendre. I guess it took Pilate about as much to authorize a crucifixion.

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