Court overturns student's conviction for threat

Appeals judges say meaning of statement is unknowable

NORTH CAROLINA -- The worst is over for Joshua Mortimer.

In February, a state court of appeals overturned his 1999 conviction for communicating threats. State v. Mortimer, 542 S.E.2d 330 (N.C.App. 2001).

A jury had found Mortimer guilty of the crime for typing "the end is near" on two computer screens at his high school shortly after the Columbine shooting, in which two students killed 12 other students, a teacher and themselves.

Mortimer, a 17-year-old Hoggard High School student at the time, received a 45-day suspended sentence, 18 months of probation and was ordered to perform 48 hours of community service as punishment for his actions.

Mortimer, who was also expelled from school, appealed the conviction. A three-judge panel voted unanimously to dismiss the charges because of a lack of evidence.

According to Judge Robin Hudson, the phrase "the end is near" does not specify "what, if anything" Mortimer intended to do, which she said was necessary to uphold a communicating-threats conviction.

"The meaning of the statement 'the end is near' is impossible to ascertain," Hudson said in the decision. "Given the context in which the statement was written-Hoggard High School was in a state of fear over the tragedy at Columbine and local rumors of bomb threats-one possible interpretation of 'the end is near' is that the writer intended to bomb the school. However, the leap to such a conclusion beyond a reasonable doubt is extremely speculative and, we think, not a reasonable inference."

Mortimer claimed to have written the statement as a joke referring to the year 2000 being the end of the world.

Sophie Hosford, Mortimer's attorney, said she was happy with the ruling.

"We feel it was the right decision," she said. "It should have been made a long time ago."

Hosford added, "It's been almost two years since the whole thing started. It's good to see the judge finally decided to do the right thing."

Mortimer is currently enrolled in a General Equivalency Diploma program at Cape Fear Community College.

reports, Spring 2001