UPDATED, July 11, 2:28 p.m.
San Antonio resident Justin Carter, 19, has been in jail for nearly four months. Carter says he has been assaulted repeatedly by other inmates and subsequently placed in solitary confinement. According to his lawyer, Carter is so depressed that he’s on suicide watch, meaning that the jail guards have stripped him of his clothes and replaced them with only a gown.
If convicted, Carter could expect up to a decade more of these conditions for the third-degree felony of making “terroristic threats.” All over a Facebook post his family and attorney say was entirely joking.
Carter’s troubles began on Feb. 13 of this year. During an argument on Facebook over the online multiplayer game League of Legends, some told Carter that he was “crazy,” according to his defense attorney, Donald Flanary III. Carter replied: ”I’m f—ed in the head alright. I think I’ma shoot up a kindergarten and watch the blood of the innocent rain down and eat the beating heart of one of them.”
Flanary told msnbc the remark was “crass and distasteful and crude,” but argued that it did not constitute a legitimate threat.
“I think the whole conversation was crude and crass, as are many conversations online with people,” he said. But he believes that the full context, which the state has not acquired from Facebook, “would indicate unequivocally that [Carter’s remark] was a joke.”
One of Carter’s interlocutors felt differently. A Canadian national took a screenshot of Carter’s post and sent it to the Canadian Crime Stoppers Association, a nonprofit which collects anonymous tips regarding possible criminal activity and passes them along to the police. According to the organization’s official site, Crime Stoppers pays out rewards of up to $2,000 to anyone whose tip leads to an arrest.
In this case, it did. The information somehow made it was to the Austin Regional Intelligence Center (ARIC), a group comprised of ten different law enforcement agencies in three different Texan counties, devoted to counterrorism and combating organized crime. The Austin Police Department, believing Carter to be an Austin resident living within half a mile of an elementary school, issued an arrest warrant for the then-18-year-old.
Carter had grown up in Austin, but he has since moved to the San Antonio area. Nonetheless, after his arrest, he was transferred to Austin’s Travis County Jail. Carter’s bail was set at $250,000. Because Carter didn’t have the money to spare, he spent weeks in jail before it was determined that he did not fall under Travis County’s jurisdiction.
Instead of walking free, Carter was then transferred to the Comal County jail in New Braunfels, Texas, on March 27. A Comal County judge then doubled his bail, bringing it to a grand total of $500,000. He rejected a plea deal to serve eight years in jail, but on April 10, a grand jury indicted Carter made terrorist threats “with the intent to cause impairment or interruption of communications, public transportation, public water, gas or public supply or other public service” and to “place the public or a substantial group of the public in fear of serious bodily injury.”
Carter’s mother, Jennifer Carter, started a Change.org petition begging for her son’s release. As of press time, the petition has nearly 99,000 signatures. In the petition, Jennifer Carter describes her son as a “good kid,” and said the family was “really confused and heartbroken” by his incarceration.
“The authorities’ over-reaction is ruining Justin’s life,” she wrote. “And it’s setting a dangerous example trying to punish kids who often say strange things that I believe are protected under freedom of speech. The justice system’s abuse of Justin is wasting time and money that could otherwise be spent to help people who honestly need it!”
Austin- based t-shirt company Victory Ink decided to help the family make bail by selling “Free Justin Carter” t-shirts and donating the proceeds to help Justin make bail.
But Carter remains behind bars, awaiting a July 16 court hearing. In the meantime, Flanary said he has been repeatedly attacked and beaten by other inmates at the jail.
“When you are being assaulted, they don’t put the other people in solitary,” said Flanary. “They just put you in solitary. And he was very depressed, so they put him on suicide watch as well. They took his clothes from him, put him in a gown, and put him in a very small cell at a very cold temperature with nothing but a surgical gown for months.”
The Comal County District Attorney’s office is not speaking to reporters about the Carter case, but they did provide msnbc with a press release.
“Because of the nature of the case, we are aware that there is a significant amount of public interest in the case,” reads the statement. “However, ethical rules prohibit a prosecutor from making any statements to be disseminated by public means that could prejudice a pending criminal proceeding. Therefore, because this is a pending case, there is very little information we can provide at this time.”
UPDATE: Justin Carter’s attorney has confirmed that Carter is out on bail as of Thursday, July 11. An “anonymous good Samaritan” donated $500,000 to the Carter family so they could make bail for Justin, said defense attorney Don Flanary.
CORRECTION, July 12 4:19 pm: Earlier version of this article said that Justin Carter had spent time in prison. In fact, he has only ever spent time in jail, as he has not been convicted.