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Free speech or criminal threats?
03:07 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

Wexler was accused of threatening to behead and slit the throats of FBI agents

He testified that he relied on sarcasm and hyperbole to get points across on his blog

CNN  — 

A blogger from Orange County, California, who was charged with threatening to harm or kill FBI agents was acquitted of some charges Thursday, and jurors could not reach a verdict on the remaining counts against him.

Peter Ronald Wexler, who had been held without bond for nearly a year prior to trial, was ordered to be released by US District Judge Josephine L. Staton, who presided over his week-long trial in Santa Ana.

Staton declared a mistrial after jurors indicated they were hopelessly deadlocked on 16 of 20 counts against Wexler. He was accused of threatening to behead and slit the throats of FBI agents, including David Bowdich, who was formerly in charge of the bureau’s Los Angeles field office.

Wexler, 50, testified that he relied on sarcasm and hyperbole to get points across on his blog, which dealt with topics that included US foreign policy in the Middle East, presidential politics and policing in America. He said he intended to be provocative in his posts, but none were intended to convey threats against Bowdich or any other agents.

In order to win a conviction, prosecutors needed to convince jurors that Wexler’s comments were “a serious expression of an intent to physically harm or murder” Bowdich and other agents and that “a reasonable person” would interpret them that way as well.

A spokesman for the US Attorney’s office in Los Angeles declined to comment on the verdict and could not immediately say whether prosecutors would seek a new trial.

Wexler’s attorneys, Caleb Mason and Marri Derby, said they spoke with jurors after the verdict, who told them the panel was stuck on an 8-4 split in favor of acquittal.

“Mr. Wexler is very happy about today’s results,” Mason said. “He’s very glad the justice system has worked so far.”

Derby said he was moved to tears by the verdict.

FBI agents visited Wexler’s RV, parked in a mobile home park in Anaheim, last September after learning of blog posts purportedly in support of cop killers and the terror group ISIS. He politely turned agents away at the door but then began blogging about the visit.

“Is it murder to kill an FBI Pig who knocks on your door without a warrant?” Wexler allegedly wrote in a blog post. “I think not.”

Is blogging about beheading FBI agents a criminal threat or free speech?

A day later, he allegedly posted “a personal MEMO to David Bowdich,” the FBI’s top agent in Southern California.

“If your (expletive) goons ever show up at my house again,” the post read, “my knife will strike the necks.”

He told agents on his blog not to bother him again “unless you’re looking for a Left-Handed Shave with my kitchen knife, a Schrade SCHF9, whch can chop down a tree and perfectly slice a juicy red, vine-ripened tomato, in that order!”

(The left-handed reference apparently applies to “Jihadi John,” an ISIS executioner who appears in several Internet beheading videos.)

Wexler wrote that Bowdich should be “shot in the back!”

“That (expletive) just got under my skin, and my trigger finger is suddenly getting very itchy,” Wexler said.

The postings included a photo of Bowdich’s head placed in the crosshairs of a riflescope and superimposed onto the the bodies of ISIS beheading victims.

Bowdich, who has since been promoted to a top job at FBI headquarters in Washington, testified that he was told of the threats, took them seriously and was concerned for his family’s safety.

Following the posts, prosecutors portrayed Wexler as a serious threat not only to Bowdich, but to those investigating him as well. They sought and received special permission to conduct a pre-dawn SWAT raid to arrest him despite a peaceful encounter weeks earlier and persuaded a federal judge he posed a continuing danger to the public and should be held without bail prior to trial.

Mason, a former federal prosecutor, told jurors during closing arguments that the government was attempting to criminalize free speech because Wexler had criticized members of the FBI. He called the verdict a vindication.

“The government has a black eye on this one,” Mason said. “This case should never have been brought.”