When five law enforcement officers turned up on Walter Abbott's doorstep in Parkville barely two hours after he sent what prosecutors said was a threatening email to Gov. Martin O'Malley, his face turned ashen.
It was as though he had seen a ghost, Sgt. Adam Stachurski, a member of the state police's Criminal Intelligence Section, told a jury in Baltimore County Circuit Court. "His hands went to his face, kind of in dismay."
Walter Abbott, a 47-year-old construction worker, stood trial Tuesday for the second time on charges of making a threat of bodily injury to a public official, a crime that carries a maximum penalty of three years in prison. In his obscenity-laden email, which he acknowledged writing, Abbott threatened to "strangle the life" from the governor if he could ever get close enough to him.
Abbott was arrested March 18, 2008, was convicted later that year and received a six-month suspended sentence and two years of probation.
But in February 2010 the Court of Special Appeals threw out the conviction, ruling that a judge erred in failing to define "threat" for the jury or explaining the difference between such a threat and the kind of speech that is constitutionally protected. Prosecutors chose to retry him. The jury was sent home Tuesday evening without reaching a decision.
Abbott contended at both trials that his message to O'Malley was nothing more than a political statement that was protected under the First Amendment, and that he simply wanted to get O'Malley's attention about the need to enforce the country's immigration laws. Abbott wrote of what he called O'Malley's "Mexican army," suggesting that he would "wrap my hands" around the governor's throat, even as he acknowledged that he would hate to lose his life because of O'Malley.
Scott Nelson, a senior attorney with Public Citizen Litigation Group, a public interest law firm, said Abbott's case is similar to that of Watts v. USA, in which 18-year-old Robert Watts said at a protest that "if they ever make me carry a rifle the first man I want to get in my sights is LBJ." The Supreme Court ruled in that case that because the threat was conditional, the language was merely political hyperbole rather than a "true threat."
"To prosecute somebody for a threat, you have to distinguish between something that is a true threat and something that is just a crude means of expressing a political opinion," said Nelson, who has no involvement in Abbott's case. "Obviously … when you see that things happen such as what happened in Arizona, threats can't be taken lightly. But at the same time, somebody needs to look at a communication like this and think seriously about whether this is anything other than somebody blowing off steam."
From the stand, Stachurski, who had been a member of the governor's protection detail before joining the intelligence unit, said he and his colleagues had been alerted to the email by O'Malley's office, standard procedure when a threat is revealed. It was easy to track down Abbott because he included his real name and address on the email submission form on the governor's website.
Abbott let the officers in and admitted that he had written the email as a way of expressing his frustration with what he said were illegal immigrants who were taking jobs from Americans, Stachurski told the jury.
Another witness, Arisha Moore, who works in the governor's office and reads an average of 300 emails that O'Malley receives every day, said that when she saw Abbott's missive, it was immediately apparent to her that it constituted a threat.
"He stated that he would do harm to someone, which in this case was the governor," she said. "Basically, his life was falling apart because of the governor."
Taking the witness stand in his defense, Abbott, in a charcoal suit and dark-blue shirt, said that he had tried to contact the governor before — once in an eight-page letter that he also sent to other state officials — and received no response. He later conceded under cross-examination that he had indeed received replies, but said they were the type of pro-forma responses that are "kicked out by computers."
Only a week before sending the email that got him arrested, Abbott said, he had testified against illegal immigration before a judiciary subcommittee in Annapolis. He had also taken part in demonstrations in Silver Spring, Takoma Park and elsewhere, he said.
Abbott, whose first job was as a busboy at Sabatino's Italian Restaurant in Baltimore's Little Italy, said he later went into the construction industry but found himself "self-employed but unemployed" in March 2008, when he wrote the email. "A lot of work seemed to be going to people who were doing it for cheaper prices," he said.
Sun reporter Yeganeh June Torbati contributed to this article.