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Wednesday, July 24, 2024 | Back issues
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2nd Cir. Questions Intent Behind Threat to Obama

(CN) - A 33-month prison sentence meted out to a distraught mother who called the White House comment line and threatened to kill President Obama may be excessive, the 2nd Circuit ruled.

In February 2012, Christine Wright-Darrisaw called the White House comment line and spoke to a volunteer phone operator for two and a half minutes. The operator described their brief conversation as "foul," "incoherent," and "irrational."

Then Wright-Darrisaw stated, "I'm going to f**k and kill Obama," at which point the operator transferred her to the Secret Service and completed an incident report.

The call was not recorded. During the subsequent investigation, Wright-Darrisaw admitted to calling the White House comment line to voice her displeasure about child custody laws, but denied threatening the President's life. She claimed her call was prompted by her negative experience in family court over the custody of her children.

After a three-day trial, a jury found her guilty of threatening President Obama, and making a false statement to the Secret Service. She was sentenced to 33 months in prison.

The trial judge focused particularly on the need for deterrence: "The message has to go out there loud and clear: You can't threaten the President of the United States and get away with it."

But on appeal, the 2nd Circuit found that "the explanation provided by the district court suggests that the court may have been too sweeping in its consideration of what constitutes deliberation cognizable under U.S.S.G. § 2A6.1(b)(6)."

The government argued that the threat was deliberate, not spontaneous, because Wright-Darrisaw had called the hotline before and she has a history of threatening behavior.

But the Manhattan-based appeals court vacated the sentence so that the lower court may reanalyze "the quantum of deliberation involved in Wright-Darrisaw's communication of her threat," U.S. Circuit Judge Peter Hall said, writing for the three-judge panel.

Hall said, "While we agree with the district court that 'there's deliberation by contacting the White House' and 'seek[ing] aid from the President specifically,' these facts alone do not necessarily demonstrate that Wright-Darrisaw's threat involved the sort of deliberation that must be present in order for the district court to decline to decrease the offense level by four levels under § 2A6.1(b)(6) of the Guidelines."

The court declined to rule on Wright-Darrisaw's challenge to the sufficiency of the evidence at this time because the Supreme Court's forthcoming decision in United States v. Elonis may directly bear on whether her communication constituted a "true threat" or not.

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