(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Friday overturned the conviction of an Arizona man who plotted to open fire on crowds attending the 2008 Super Bowl in Tempe, Arizona.
An 11-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit found Kurt Havelock was not guilty of mailing threatening communications to any individual person when he sent letters to media organizations describing his plan for the game-day massacre.
Havelock, upset over being denied a liquor license to open a bar, had purchased an assault rifle and ammunition for the attack, the court opinion said. On the way to the stadium, he dropped six packages in the mail to media organizations including the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times containing what he labeled an "econo-political" manifesto.
"It will be swift, and bloody. I will sacrifice your children upon the altar of your excess," he wrote in the document, which he expected to be read after he was killed in an act of "suicide by cops." After arriving at the stadium parking lot, Havelock had a change of heart and turned himself in to police.
A jury convicted Havelock of six counts of mailing threatening communications to a person, sentencing him to one year in prison.
On appeal, Havelock argued he was not guilty under the federal law because he mailed the letters to corporations, not individuals. The law makes it a crime to threaten to kidnap or injure a person. A majority of the appeals court panel agreed, finding the statute referred only to people, not corporations.
"It simply makes no sense to threaten to kidnap a corporation, or injure the person of a corporation," Judge Betty Fletcher wrote for the majority.
Prosecutors had argued the court should read the letters, not just the mailing label, to determine who Havelock intended to threaten. In his manifesto, Havelok said he would "slay your children." But the 9th Circuit majority found it "highly unlikely" Havelock was addressing any particular person whose children he would slay.
Two judges dissented, finding Havelock intended his manifesto to be read by the general public.
"Kurt clearly didn't have the intent to threaten anybody even though the document he put in the mailbox contained disturbing statements," said Havelock's lawyer, Daniel Kaplan.
Havelock planned to die in the attack and didn't intend readers to be threatened after the fact, he said.
Prosecutors were "studying the opinion to review our options and we'll continue to charge appropriate cases to protect the public," a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Arizona said.
(Reporting by Terry Baynes; Editing by Daniel Trotta)