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Black leaders question charges in e-mail threat

February 23, 2001

Black leaders question charges in e-mail threat



By BOB PARTLOW / Staff Writer


MARTINSBURG, W. Va. - Two black leaders in Jefferson County questioned Friday whether a misdemeanor assault charge is serious enough for an e-mail allegedly sent by a high school student to the president of the Board of Education.

But Charles Town Police Chief Mike Aldridge said the charge is the most serious he could bring against the student, based on the reading of state law.

An e-mail police say was sent by Sarah Elizabeth Turner began by referring to Board President Larry Togans, who is black, with a racial slur.

The e-mail, provided by the Charles Town Police Department, also read, "ya know it's pretty bad, when people I know, my self included, who are not prejudiced, commented that there was going to be a lynching, get a rope and find a tree."

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The e-mail referred to a dispute over changing the date of graduation, which the board refused to do. The refusal had upset Turner because it interfered with her plans to join the military, police said.

"It was explicit. It was something, I think, a whole lot more serious than the police ... are making it," said James Tolbert, state president of the NAACP who lives in Jefferson County. "This is something that is a whole lot more than a misdemeanor.

"It's not child's play. It appears to be a hate crime. It's something that should be taken seriously"

"You talk about lynching; to a black person that's a death threat," said George Rutherford, county president of the NAACP. "I'm surprised it's a misdemeanor. They should have called in the federal people."

Aldridge said police and prosecutors considered a number of possible charges after the e-mail was received by school district officials Feb. 11. Police said they learned who sent it by getting on the Internet. They then interviewed Turner, Aldridge said. She was arraigned Wednesday.

"We looked at hate crimes and whether this was a threat against a public official," Aldridge said. "The threat against a public official had to involve something imminent that he could change. She was asking for a change to something that already happened.

"And if it was a hate crime, the threat has to be based on the fact that it was done because of race. In this case, the threat was because he was running the School Board," Aldridge said.

"Look at the e-mail. It said he was rude (at a School Board meeting). We didn't feel there was enough there to cite for a hate crime. We didn't have the criteria. So we ended up with assault."

Turner, 18, Route 4 Box 784, Harper's Ferry, could not be reached for comment.

Conviction of misdemeanor assault is punishable by up to six months in jail and up to a $100 fine. A felony hate crime is punishable by up to 10 years in prison and up to a $5,000 fine.

Proving a hate crime when a threat is made can be difficult, said Paul Sheridan, a state senior assistant attorney general and coordinator of the West Virginia Hate Crimes Task Force. It usually depends on specific facts of the case, he said.

When a threat is involved, those who want to prosecute must show it falls outside broad protections of free speech, no matter how hateful, he said. The second criteria in state law is that the threat must have come because of a person's race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, political affiliation or sex, Sheridan said.

He knows nothing about this case and wouldn't comment on it if he did, he said. But he said race would not be the only factor in an incident to determine if it was a hate crime.

He said a fight in a parking lot between a black person and a white person over a parking spot might involve racial epithets "and might have occurred anyway." But if the race factor was "significant" enough, it can be considered a hate crime.

"The question is 'is this about race or is this about something else?' " Sheridan said. "If there's some basis that race was a factor, even if it wasn't the only factor, it may be enough."

Aldrige and prosecutors said "a veiled reference about something that is very offensive to African-Americans" didn't seem to fit the definition of a hate crime.

He said taking action against Turner is "sending a message" police take these matters seriously.

Tolbert and Rutherford also said they concerned about sending a message.

"We can't have people thinking they can threaten these things ... and thinking they can get away with it," Tolbert said.

Added Rutherford: "We're going to wait and see what happens. But I think she needs more than to have her hand slapped."

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