A judge threw out a criminal charge Tuesday against a Crofton man accused last summer of likening himself to a "joker" and threatening to blow up co-workers.
The case raised alarm in the wake of a mass shooting in Colorado but ended quietly after prosecutors were unable to connect the allegations to a specific crime.
Police seized guns and ammunition from Neil Edwin Prescott's Crofton home after authorities said he called in threats to a Prince George's County business. He was eventually charged with a single count of telephone misuse, which the judge threw out Tuesday.
The circumstances surrounding Prescott's arrest illustrate the difficulty of balancing public safety with free speech, as mass shootings continue to rattle the public and authorities face pressure to head off potential danger.
Defense attorney William C. Brennan Jr. said Prescott's case proves that not all threats need to be prosecuted. Prescott legally owned the weapons seized from his home and probably will get them back now that the case has been resolved.
"Police have a responsibility to protect the public, but it doesn't mean every time they have to prosecute every case they investigate," Brennan said. He said the case stemmed from the misunderstanding of jokes Prescott made to a friend while out of work with a concussion.
But Prince George's County State's Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks said the case shows that Maryland needs a stronger law against threats like those Prescott was accused of making. After Prescott's arrest, she and other local officials said they believed they had thwarted a "violent episode."
"Making a threat of mass violence ought to be against the law," Alsobrooks said Tuesday.
Last July, Prince George's County police accused Prescott of saying in telephone calls to a co-worker that he wanted to see the brains of a supervisor "splatter all over the sidewalk." He had been working as a contractor with the mail supply company Pitney Bowes in Capitol Heights.
Police said Prescott identified himself as a "joker," a term that drew added concern after the theater shooting in which 12 people were killed during the premiere of the Batman film "The Dark Knight Rises" in Aurora, Colo.
When Anne Arundel County police arrived at his home, Prescott, who is 6 feet 7, answered the door in a T-shirt that said "Guns don't kill people, I do." Based on information from a police interview there, authorities secured a court order to have Prescott committed involuntarily for psychiatric evaluation. Officials then seized what they described as an assault weapon, shotguns, handguns and a large cache of ammunition, according to court records.
In August, prosecutors filed one misdemeanor count of misusing the telephone, which carries a maximum sentence of three years in prison and a $500 fine. Prescott had a permit to collect the weapons and had no criminal record beyond a traffic offense.
Alsobrooks said at the time that she believed that the charge was "insufficient" but that the evidence did not justify a more serious charge. Prompted by the case, she unsuccessfully lobbied the legislature this year for harsher laws against threats of mass violence.
Because the charge was filed against Prescott while he was under psychiatric evaluation, his court case originated in Prince George's County's mental health court. On Tuesday, his attorney presented a new version of the events surrounding Prescott's arrest.
Prescott had not left his job, Brennan said, but was at home at the time of the telephone calls because of a concussion he had suffered at work. He said his client suffered from post-concussion syndrome and was taking medication to battle migraines.
A contract senior programmer for Pitney Bowes, Prescott was available for consultation at home, though Brennan said he probably should have been left alone to rest.
One morning in July, a co-worker texted Prescott, saying, "'Call me. I got a problem,'" Brennan said.
The men spoke twice that morning, making small talk while they discussed the work-related issue. Both disliked their supervisor and referred to him as a "DAU" or "dumb a— user."
During the calls, Brennan said, Prescott made statements about his supervisor. Several hours later, the co-worker told his supervisor about the calls, only because he was concerned about Prescott's condition, Brennan said. The supervisor called police, he said.
The co-worker "thought he was joking and didn't anticipate such a reaction by law enforcement," Brennan told the court.
Brennan said police were initially denied an arrest warrant by a court commissioner who said there was not enough evidence. When police got one from a prosecutor in August, he said, it was defective because it did not provide specifics of how authorities believed Prescott had violated the law. Without that information, Brennan said, he could not prepare a defense.
Mental health court Judge Patrice E. Lewis called for a recess, then agreed that the charges should be thrown out.
Prescott, wearing a blue jacket and tan slacks, smiled in the hallway just before his case was dismissed. He declined to comment afterward.
A spokeswoman for Pitney Bowes declined to comment on the case, saying that Prescott had been a subcontractor who had not been in a company office for more than a year.
Alsobrooks said her office will review Prescott's case before deciding whether to refile charges. Prosecutors have until late July before a statute of limitations runs out. Alsobrooks said she expects Prescott to ask that his guns be returned.
"That's the system we live in," said Mark Magaw, the Prince George's County police chief. "I think we acted appropriately."
Baltimore attorney Ellen A. Callegary, a former assistant Maryland attorney general who consults with public agencies on mental health issues, said police should heed all threats. But she said the burden then shifts to prosecutors to decide whether a threat warrants a psychiatric evaluation, should be prosecuted or ignored.
It's not easy, she acknowledged.
"It may not be a criminal justice issue; it may not be a mental health issue," Callegary said. "It may have been an issue of bad judgment, of someone saying they want to kill their boss and are just venting."
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