HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Jury selection began Wednesday in the trial of a blogger who was arrested two years ago for urging readers to "take up arms" against Connecticut lawmakers and suggesting that government officials "obey the Constitution or die" after a legislative debate about Catholic Church finances.
The prosecution and defense began questioning potential jurors in Hartford Superior Court in the case of Harold "Hal" Turner, a North Bergen, N.J., resident who is already serving a nearly three-year prison sentence for making death threats against federal judges in Illinois. Turner insists his comments were protected by the First Amendment right of free speech.
Six jurors, plus two alternates, will be chosen for the trial, which is expected to begin Sept. 15 and last up to four days.
Also Wednesday, officials disclosed in court that the state had revised its charges against Turner to one count of felony inciting injury to persons and one count of misdemeanor threatening. Turner had faced three counts of inciting injury to persons, which carries one to 10 years in prison per count upon conviction. The new charges reduce the potential prison time in the case.
Turner, 49, who wore a dark suit and was clean-shaven in the courtroom as his family watched from the small crowd, pleaded not guilty to the revised charges Wednesday and demanded that the judge honor what he called his right to have a grand jury review the case before it went to trial. But Judge Carl Schuman told Turner there is no such right in Connecticut state courts.
Before the trial begins, Turner's public defender, John Stawicki, is expected to file a motion to dismiss the threatening charge. Schuman announced Wednesday that he denied Turner's previous motions to dismiss the three inciting charges. Besides the free speech claim, Stawicki argued that Turner never meant for anyone to get hurt and that Connecticut courts didn't have jurisdiction because Turner made the blog comments at his home in New Jersey.
Connecticut Capitol police arrested Turner in June 2009 after he wrote on his blog that Catholics should "take up arms and put down this tyranny by force" and promised to post lawmakers' addresses. He was angry over legislation that would have given lay members of Roman Catholic churches in the state more control over parish finances. The bill actually had been withdrawn three months before the blog post.
"It is our intent to foment direct actions against these individuals personally," Turner wrote. "These beastly government officials should be made an example of as a warning to others in government: Obey the Constitution or die."
Stawicki said during pretrial arguments that the comments were as harmless as baseball fans shouting, "Kill the umpire!"
Police said Turner's specific targets were the co-chairmen of the legislature's Judiciary Committee at the time — Sen. Andrew McDonald and Rep. Michael Lawlor, who both now hold high-ranking positions in Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's administration — and state ethics enforcement officer Thomas Jones.
Prosecutors Thomas Garcia told prospective jurors that he may call up to five witnesses: McDonald, Lawlor, Jones, Capitol Police Cpl. Timothy Boyle and David Bednarz, now a spokesman for Malloy.
Stawicki said he wasn't sure if he would call any witnesses, noting that the burden of proof is on the prosecution.
In the case of the Illinois judges, Turner was sentenced in December to 33 months in prison. The case stemmed from a 2009 ruling by the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld a lower court decision dismissing lawsuits that challenged handgun bans in Chicago and Oak Park, Ill.
Turner criticized the ruling online, saying, "These judges must die."