UPPER MARLBORO — A judge Tuesday dismissed charges against a Maryland man who police said called himself a “joker” and told a co-worker that he wanted to see his boss’s brain “splatter all over the sidewalk.”
The trial in Prince George’s County was to have been the first platform for Neil E. Prescott to lay out his defense since being arrested last year in a case that unfolded against the backdrop of a Colorado movie theater massacre. But his lawyer raised technical arguments at the outset of the trial about the wording of the charging documents, prompting a judge to throw out the case before a single witness could be called.
State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks, the county’s top prosecutor, said the judge’s dismissal underscored the need for laws that explicitly criminalize threats of mass violence. She said her office, which had pushed unsuccessfully in Annapolis for such a measure, had not yet decided whether to refile charges against the 29-year-old Crofton man.
Prescott was arrested last July after police said he told a co-worker in two phone conversations that he was a “joker” and that he wanted to see his supervisor’s brain splatter on the sidewalk and would go load his guns and “blow everybody up.” The supervisor contacted police after learning of the comments. The “joker” remark prompted concern and an aggressive police response, coming a week after a mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater screening of the new Batman film. The Joker is a notorious villain in the Batman series.
Police said Prescott had a cache of more than 20 weapons, which he can now recover because they were legally purchased, and was wearing a shirt that said “Guns Don’t Kill People. I Do,” when officers confronted him at home. County Police Chief Mark Magaw said at the time that police had interrupted a potentially serious shooting plot.
“We can’t measure what was prevented here, but what was going on over the last 36 hours was a significant incident in the county. And we think a violent episode was avoided,” Magaw said at a news conference after the arrest.
But Prescott’s friends jumped to his defense, saying his offbeat sense of humor had been misinterpreted.
Prescott’s lawyer, William Brennan, attacked the police narrative in an opening statement Tuesday, saying he would show Prescott’s co-worker considered the comments a joke — made during lighthearted and mutual badmouthing of a supervisor. Though police said Prescott at the time of his comments had been fired — or was in the process of being fired — from his position at software and mailroom supplier Pitney Bowes, Brennan said he was home after suffering a workplace injury that left him with a concussion.
Prescott has been receiving outpatient mental health treatment in the last year and attending status conferences in the county’s mental health court.
Even while contending that the comments constituted an urgent threat, prosecutors said they had no better choice than to charge Prescott with a misdemeanor count of misusing a telephone — a statute they acknowledged was an imperfect fit for the allegations. The case inspired Alsobrooks to seek legislation that would criminalize threats of mass violence, but the bill died in the state Senate this year.
At issue Tuesday was the wording of charging documents drafted by prosecutors last year.
Those documents say the two calls to Prescott’s co-worker were intended to threaten, harass or annoy. But Brennan, the defense lawyer, said prosecutors in using the word “or” were overly vague about their legal theory and about which of the three elements of the crime they were singling out for prosecution. District Court Judge Patrice Lewis agreed that the charging documents were defective and threw out the case. Alsobrooks said her office believed the charging documents were appropriately drafted.
Police and prosecutors told reporters after the dismissal that they stood by their decisions and that someone who made the comments Prescott is alleged to have made deserved to be prosecuted.
“He made these threats — no one else,” Magaw said. “He had the capacity to carry them out.”
Brennan said in an interview Tuesday evening that he was pleased with the judge’s decision, but felt confident that Prescott would have been acquitted had the trial occurred. He said he didn’t fault the police for responding to the reported threat but didn’t think the case should have been prosecuted.