A Tweet as a Deadly Weapon: The State of Texas v. John Rayne Rivello
Last Spring semester, while working on coding cases, I came across a case with characteristics that would determine prosecution for many future cases. The State of Texas v. John Rayne Rivello determines whether a tweet, or any message-sending medium utilized on the Internet, can be considered as a deadly weapon if it inflicts harm on the recipient. Also, this case has a hate crime component because Eichenwald was targeted for his religious beliefs.
On December 15th, 2016, journalist Kurt Eichenwald suffered a seizure after viewing a tweet he received that contained an animation with strobe-like effects that were specifically meant to induce a seizure. Eichenwald has publicly spoken about his epilepsy and disdain for President Trump. John Rayne Rivello, the sender of the tweet and a supporter of President Trump, wrote to Eichenwald “You deserve a seizure for your post,” and attached a flashing image of Pepe, a known symbol among white supremacists. When Rivello was arrested, he was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon along with a bias or prejudice enhancement in the state of Texas. The case was added to the Prosecution Project database because Rivello had an obvious socio-political aim when injuring Eichenwald and is facing a felony charge.
According to the FBI Uniform Crime Reporting Program, aggravated assault is defined as an “unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury. The UCR Program further specifies that this type of assault is usually accompanied by the use of a weapon.” However, this would be one of the first cases, if not the first, that the deadly weapon was a tweet. The results of this case will influence the prosecution of future cases in which hate crime messages with the intent to cause physical harm are sent over the internet.
While this is the first case to be prosecuted with a tweet as a weapon, attacks against those with epilepsy on social media have been common for years. The Epilepsy Foundation wrote a press release in December 2019 stating that the foundation had filed criminal complaints because of a series of attacks on their Twitter field designed to trigger seizures during National Epilepsy Awareness Month. According to the United States Department of Justice, protections for disability were added to the federal hate crimes states in 1988 and epilepsy is considered a disability. In 2009, the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 18 U.S.C. § 249 expanded the original statute.
I wondered why this case solely prosecuted the bias and prejudice enhancement on the basis of Eichenwald’s religious affiliation rather than his disability as well. According to Garlick (2018) in 2015, only 1.3% of all hate crimes were reported against disabled individuals while 21.3% were motivated by religious bias. When analyzing the cases due to religious bias, 53% of cases were directed against Jewish individuals or institutions. The Southern Poverty Law Center interviewed Jack Levin, a professor at Northeastern University specializing in violence and conflict, who stated disability hate crimes are “woefully under-reported, under-investigated, and under-prosecuted,” indicating a growing need for law enforcement to take disability hate crimes more seriously.
Concerning this case, I believe there are two different reasons why the tweet was not also considered a disability hate crime. Either those in charge of prosecution in the state of Texas determined it would be too difficult to successfully convict Rivello on these charges or determined that the seizure was a means to an end and he was not attacked due to his disability. Either way, it would be beneficial to gain clarity on why inducing a seizure, in an individual the defendant knew had epilepsy, was not considered a disability hate crime in the state of Texas. While this aspect of the prosecution is a disappointment, the court believes that Rivello will plead guilty meaning that this case would allow for future attacks through messages on social media to be considered aggravated assault. This conviction would help all American citizens and hopefully deter trolls on social media from sending physically harmful messages.
“Aggravated Assault.” FBI. FBI, August 18, 2016. https://ucr.fbi.gov/crime-in-the-u.s/2015/crime-in-the-u.s.-2015/offenses-known-to-law-enforcement/aggravated-assault.
“Epilepsy Foundation Files Criminal Complaint and Requests Investigation in Response to Attacks on Twitter Feed.” Epilepsy Foundation. Epilepsy Foundation, December 16, 2019. https://www.epilepsy.com/release/2019/12/epilepsy-foundation-files-criminal-complaint-and-requests-investigation-response.
Garlick, Melissa. “Hate Crime Laws.” In Hate Crimes: Typology, Motivations, and Victims, edited by Robin Maria Valeri and Kevin Borgeson, 50–85. Durham, NC: Carolina Academic Press, 2018.
“Hate Crime Laws.” The United States Department of Justice. U.S. Department of Justice, March 7, 2019. https://www.justice.gov/crt/hate-crime-laws.
McKinney, Debra. “The Invisible Hate Crime.” Southern Poverty Law Center. Southern Poverty Law Center, August 5, 2018. https://www.splcenter.org/fighting-hate/intelligence-report/2018/invisible-hate-crime#ongoing-fight.