Smirking Pa. man guilty in violent Facebook threat case

Anthony D. Elonis
Anthony D. Elonis (Lehigh Valley Live.com)
Posted: October 20, 2011

The violent-rap-lyric-as-therapy failed as a defense in the Facebook threat trial.

Anthony D. Elonis, 28, who claimed posts on his Facebook page threatening to kill his wife, a classroom of children and an FBI agent were only his way of coping with an emotional crisis was instead convicted in federal court Thursday.

The U.S. District Court jury deliberated for about two hours. The quick verdict came after the jurors spent the morning watching Elonis periodically smirk as he was cross-examined by Assistant U.S. Attorney Sherri A. Stephan.

Elonis, from Lehigh County, faces a maximum sentence of 20 years, but in all likelihood will receive a shorter stint in prison when sentenced in January. He was acquitted on one count of using the internet to threaten his former co-workers at Dorney Park and Wildwater Kingdom, where he was an operations manager before being fired in 2010.

Elonis started posting the lengthy, sometimes rhythmic, rants after learning his wife was seeing another man, he was demoted and then fired at work, his wife obtained a court order to keep him away, and he had to move back home with his parents.

The FBI intervened after being contacted by local law enforcement worried about Elonis' postings.

While Elonis insisted on the witness stand that he would never hurt anyone, his potential for violence was not the issue before the jury. Rather, they had to decide if a "reasonable, objective" person would be put in fear by his lengthy screeds.

Elonis' wife, Tara, 25, testified that lyrics about him killing her and tossing her body in a stream near her home made her genuinely frightened. The couple were 16 and 19 when they wed, and have two children.

And while Elonis said that his wife and others could have simply not clicked onto his Facebook page and so not seen the threats, Stephan said that argument was disingenuous.

"The use of Facebook doesn't provide an excuse to threaten someone," she said after the verdict.

"He knew the people he wanted to see the messages. . .would go there," in order to "protect themselves."

Defense attorney Benjamin Cooper said it was Elonis's decision to take the witness stand in his own defense.

"He wanted to explain his position, and the jury decided that they felt differently," he said. An appeal is probable.

Threatening physical harm is not necessarily a violation of the federal law that prohibits transmitting threats in interstate commerce, which occurs when the internet is used as the medium.

Stephan had to convince jurors that Elonis' threats were what the law calls "true threats," which means a reasonable person familiar with the context would interpret the postings as a real threat to do harm.

"The law protects people from the fear" of physical harm, Stephan said.

In one posting after his wife obtained a protection from abuse order, he wrote:

"Did you know that it's illegal for me to say I want to kill my wife?

It's illegal.

It's indirect criminal contempt,"

He later wrote, "Fold up your PFA and put it in your pocket.

Is it thick enough to stop a bullet?"

Pushed by Stephan to admit his goal was to upset and frighten his wife, Elonis replied, "No more upset than she made me."

He also admitted posting messages boasting that any attempt to prosecute him would end in failure and, in turn, would generate a compensatory payment to him.


Contact staff writer Nathan Gorenstein at 215-854-2797 or ngorenstein@phillynews.com.

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