Kentucky zombie update number two

While I was enjoying my parents' visit last week--and more or less neglecting the Internet and my blog, other than taking a few minutes a day to post stuff I had written before for just such an occasion, brief link and comment posts, my monthly EneMan pictures (again, prepared the weekend before), and plugs for two of my three favorite blog carnivals (the Fifth Skeptics' Circle and Grand Rounds XXVII)--it appears I missed an update to the William Poole case in Kentucky (a.k.a. the "Kentucky zombie" story), which I had commented on before here and here. I guess that's what I get for being mostly unplugged from the blogosphere for a few days. Fortunately, Zero Intelligence and James Bow (and here) both picked up the slack for me. Nonetheless, being the pontificator I am (otherwise why would I enjoy blogging so much?), I still can't resist sneaking in one more post of my own about this issue before my turn at hosting the Tangled Bank two days from now. I guess the question is, now that this update is nearly a week old, is there anything that your humble blogger Orac can add to the issue?

Of course there is! There always is. Of course, no one may care, but since when did that ever stop me (or any other blogger) from commenting on an issue before? Although I did blame myself for an initical lack of skepticism, I found the whole affair disturbing because the story was so easy to believe. If there weren’t such a post-Columbine paranoid climate of fear and “zero tolerance” in our schools, I thought that my B.S. detector would almost certainly have immediately told me not to take this story at face value. Certainly, when I first commented on this case and then revisited it, I never expected the level of attention my posts managed to engender. This may have been one of the first times my blog ever produced a reaction outside of the medical or scientific blogosphere and I got all sorts of comments, some claiming to be from people in Winchester County who also claimed to have first hand knowledge of the case. Given that they chose to remain anonymous and never even gave me an e-mail address that I could try to verify their stories with, I chose to take what they posted with a big grain of salt. The whole thing ended up taking on a bit of a surreal air.

In any case, before I go on, a brief recap is in order, for those who don't want to click on all the links above. In late February, a young man from Kentucky named William Poole was arrested for making “terroristic threats,” based on his writings. Poole initially claimed that his arrest was because of a story he had written about zombies taking over a school. This story got wide play in the blogosphere, but a little more digging showed that it was more complex than I had first realized. In essence, the story that had gotten Poole into hot water was about a group of "soldiers" (called in the story "True Soldiers" or "No Limit Soldiers") who planned a violent takeover of a school. The most disturbing part of the story was read in court:
They stood at the yard carrying bags full of weapons and tools. They yelled kill them. All of soldiers of zone two started shooting. They are dropping every one of them. After five minutes all the people were laying on the ground dead.
On the basis of this story and some vague claims that Poole had actually contacted other students to ask them to join this "Brotherhood of NLS Soldiers," police arrested him and charged him with "terroristic threatening."

Now, it appears that, after having had his bond apparently paid by a donor with an interest in civil rights, Poole has been arrested again. This time it appears to be a result of his own poor judgment, which he originally showed in abundance by making the fanciful claim that the stories that got him into trouble were about a zombie attack on a school. He had been ordered as a condition of his parole not to go near any county schools but apparently went with a friend to an elementary school, where his friend needed to pick up his sister. He has been sentenced to six months in jail for violating a judge's order.

Like Mr. Bow, I do not consider the people of Kentucky to be a bunch of rednecks or ignorant. Certainly, since my first post, damaging additional information came out that hurt Poole's case and made me wonder whether my position was the correct one after all. If other evidence comes out to show that Poole was actually acting on a plan to attack the school, I'd be all for throwing away the key. However, I do think the people of Kentucky and Winchester County have been badly served by how their lawmakers have written and now police and prosecutors are interpreting their terroristic threatening law. In the post-Columbine and post-9/11 world, it is hard to blame them too much for believing that they needed vague new laws to protect their children while in school. But leave aside Poole's apparent inability to comprehend or obey a simple judicial order for a moment. I still think this case raises serious civil liberties problems and anxiously await the trial, where, hopefully everything the police has will become known. What people often forget when laws like Kentucky's terroristic threatening law (or the Federal government's Patriot Act) are passed is that creative police and prosecutors will almost always test their limits and see how far they can go in using the law. Even now, we see the Patriot Act being used to prosecute non-terrorism crimes.

The key problem is that, even if everything the police have said about Poole's writings are true, in the absence of other evidence showing that Poole was actually acting on a conspiracy to attack the school (by, for instance, recruiting students), it is hard for me to support their response to Poole's poorly written violent story. No police or prosecutor that I have yet been able to find has stated that the writings were anything other than a story. Until his recent re-arrest, the sole offense Poole has been charged with so far, as far as I can tell, is "terroristic threatening" and then only on the basis of what is, from the few exerpts I have seen, obviously a poorly written story. In essence, he was arrested for what appears to be a work of fiction. Consequently, I stand by my opinion that the Kentucky law on "terroristic threatening" is disturbingly vague in what it proscribes. It in effect criminalizes speech that is not clearly connected with specific planned incidents of violence and seems to give schools a special privilege with respect to such speech. I can see all sorts of potential for mischief from a law like this and have a very hard time supporting throwing Poole behind bars--even if his writings contain exactly what you claim they contain. Even in that case, I rather suspect that Poole is more in need of psychological care rather than imprisonment.

Once again, I will try to keep an eye on this case, as I fear it is yet another indication that we are trying to trade essential liberties for a little temporary safety, as Ben Franklin put it. As he also reminded us, that doesn't work. I don't know when the trial is scheduled yet, but I'll try to find out, so that I can find out what happens. My one fear is that there will be a plea bargain that allows the court to seal the actual story, so that we can never see it and never judge for ourselves if the police overreacted.


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