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Court: New trial for man accused of threatening prosecutor

RALEIGH (AP) — The state Supreme Court agreed on Friday it was appropriate to overturn the conviction of a man who strongly criticized a western North Carolina local prosecutor, citing First Amendment protections.
Still, justices ordered a new trial be initiated for David Warren Taylor, saying a “reasonable jury” presented with evidence and proper instructions could conclude that his social media posts warranted a guilty verdict.
Taylor was convicted in 2018 of threatening to kill Macon County District Attorney Ashley Welch. He posted several comments to his personal Facebook page in 2016 that he deleted after a couple of hours. He was upset that Welch, who serves several western counties, was not prosecuting some parents in the death of a toddler, according to court documents.
A Macon sheriff’s detective took screenshots of posts before they were deleted. One that read if “our head prosecutor won’t do anything then the death to her as well” served as the primary basis for the charge against Taylor.
“Yea I said it. Now raid my house for communicating threats and see what they meet,” the post continued, according to the opinion. The 2018 jury convicted Taylor, who received a suspended prison sentence and a $1,000 fine.
Taylor appealed, and a three-judge panel on the Court of Appeals last year vacated the conviction and directed that Taylor be acquitted. The Court of Appeals opinion stated that his posts didn’t meet the definition of a “true threat” as required by the U.S. Constitution, according to a 1969 U.S. Supreme Court decision. Attorneys for the state appealed that decision.
Associate Justice Mike Morgan, writing Friday’s majority opinion, upheld the decision of Superior Court Judge Gary Gavenus denying Taylor’s motion during the 2018 trial to dismiss the case.
But as jurors had failed to receive proper jury instructions related to the First Amendment, Morgan wrote, a jury should still make the call about whether Taylor’s words were just political hyperbole or spilled over to a true threat.
“Because … the facts presented by the state could have allowed a reasonable jury to conclude defendant uttered a true threat, a properly instructed jury must be allowed to consider this question,” Morgan wrote in reversing the acquittal directive.
Writing her own opinion Friday, Associate Justice Anita Earls said the Supreme Court’s majority got it wrong for believing there was enough evidence to justify rejecting Taylor’s motion to dismiss the case.
“Absent substantial evidence of Taylor’s intent to threaten District Attorney Welch, the majority disserves the First Amendment principles it purports to uphold by speculatively reaching for a conclusion the evidence does not reasonably support,” she wrote.

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