Michigan man jailed for anti-cop rant raises free speech fears
For two weeks Nheru Littleton has been held in a Michigan jail on $1 million bond, awaiting a chance to fight the accusation he made a threat of terrorism — a criminal charge that a local Detroit prosecutor already declined to bring due to lack of evidence and that civil rights advocates see as overkill that could chill free speech.
The threats in question were posts the 40-year-old auto factory worker is accused of making on Facebook in July, among them praise to a lone sniper who days earlier had killed three police officers in Dallas.
“To those sniper’s in Texas, I commend your bravery and actions!!! #blacklivesmatter,” prosecutors said one post read.
“All lives can’t matter until Black Lives matter!!!! Kill all white cops!!!” read another.
The posts were disturbing, to say the least, according to Wayne County Prosecutor Kym L. Worthy. But ultimately the Facebook messages were deemed too vague — they didn’t meet the standard of a “true” criminal threat, and Ms. Worthy’s office declined to bring criminal charges.
“There is no evidence the suspect took any action himself, or did anything to facilitate the killing of white officers,” Ms. Worthy wrote in a statement issued in August explaining her decision.
That’s where the case ended, at least until Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette got involved. The state’s top prosecutor assigned investigators to review the case and announced this month that two felony charges — making a terroristic threat and using a computer to commit a crime — would be brought.
“A threat to law enforcement officers is a threat to us all,” Mr. Schuette said at the time. “This is a fight worth fighting. We cannot allow it to be open season on police.”
Mr. Littleton was arrested Oct. 5, and though he had remained free since police released him from custody after questioning him in July, his bond was set at $1 million. It’s an amount the former Marine and his family haven’t been able to pay.
For the last two weeks, attorney Leon Weiss said Mr. Littleton has used accrued leave from his factory job to offset his time in jail. But he worries that if his client remains in jail much longer, the father of two will lose his job.
District Judge Michael McNally declined to lower the bond during a hearing last week. Mr. Weiss believes the high bond was set by the presiding judge “as a show of support for police officers,” not because his client constitutes a real threat.
“Even if something is disturbing and offensive, there is a certain latitude in this country for saying things,” Mr. Weiss said. “I’m worried about the government, instead of acting out of strict prosecutorial and ethical constraints, if they are trying to make an example out of somebody.”
A spokeswoman for Mr. Schuette said it was a police captain, not prosecutors, who argued for bond at Mr. Littleton’s arraignment.
Detroit Police Chief James Craig previously defended his decision to pursue charges in the case, saying that in a climate in which police officers are being targeted for violence, he could not sit idly by when threats are made.
But civil rights activists, who believe Ms. Worthy correctly interpreted the law in deciding there wasn’t enough evidence to substantiate charges, are concerned that the attorney general’s decision to press charges could be taken as a threat by those who seek to speak out against police.
“Even if you think this person went over the line, what kind off message is the attorney general trying to send to the public at large?” said Dan Korobkin, deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “Do we have to be concerned that if we are very critical of law enforcement, that we are going to get a knock on the door and find ourselves in jail?”
Free speech advocates are concerned that Nheru Littleton is being held in jail after writing anti-police Facebook posts.