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Aaron Michael Heineman wrote a University of Utah professor a poem filled with threats and hate.
On Monday, a federal appeals court found that he was well within his rights to do so, and that merely threatening to kill someone isn't necessarily a crime.
"The district court found that [Heineman] knowingly sent an email that caused the recipient to reasonably fear bodily harm," the court wrote. "[Heineman] argues that his conviction violated the First Amendment because the court did not also find that he intended the recipient to feel threatened. … Agreeing with the defendant, we reverse and remand."
In a decision that overturned a lower court's finding, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday declared Heineman's hateful poem protected speech, meaning it's covered under the protection of the First Amendment and shouldn't have been used to criminally indict or convict him.
It now goes back to U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, where a judge will determine whether Heineman originally intended the letter to be threatening. No court date has been set so far.
Judges Harris L. Hartz, Bobby R. Baldock and Robert E. Bacharach ruled in a unanimous decision that in order for the threat to fall beyond the protections of the federal Constitution, Heineman would have had to intend that his poem be perceived as a threat.
Heineman's lawyers argued that he neither meant for his letter to be taken as a direct threat, nor did he intend to carry out any violent acts against the university professor.
"Does the First Amendment … require the government to prove in any true-threat prosecution that the defendant intended the recipient to feel threatened?" the court wrote. "We conclude that it does."
Heineman, now 35 and on probation, was a Utah Valley University student when he was arrested and charged in U.S. District Court with one count of felony interstate threatening communications in May 2011.
According to the original court complaint, Heineman also emailed a second professor at the University of Utah and Westminster College's Inclusion Center for Community and Justice.
His emails, the court explained in its decision Monday, contained white supremacist rhetoric that prompted the judges to draw comparisons to cross burning and Ku Klux Klan demonstrations and other such "symbolic speech."
"Come the time of the new revolution, we will convene to detain you and slay you, by a bowie knife shoved up into the skull from your pig chin you choke, with blood flooding in your filthily treasonous throat," Heineman wrote in his emailed poem. "We put the noose ring around your neck and drag you as you choke and gasp."
After receiving the email in 2011, the professor forwarded a copy to the University of Utah police, who later traced the emails sent from the email username "siegheil_neocon" back to Heineman using an IP address that was registered to a student computer lab at UVU in Orem.
When Heineman was arrested, officers said, he asked, "Is this about the email?"
Heineman, who communicates using American Sign Language, allegedly confirmed that he owned the two email accounts from which the threatening emails were sent, according to court documents.
Heineman's father has told authorities that his son was born deaf and has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, which makes it difficult for him to understand social cues and behavioral norms.
U. officials have no comment on the decision, spokeswoman Maria O'Mara said in a Tuesday email statement. She says the school has not commented on the case in the past.
A similar case out of the 3rd District which covers Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and the Virgin Islands will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on Dec. 1 of this year.
Tribune reporter Annie Knox contributed to this report.