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Law to make online threats felony

BRADENTON — Jennifer Kesse would have turned 29 last week.

The 24-year-old was taken near her Orlando condo a little over four years ago and has been missing ever since.

Since then her Bradenton parents have searched for her and stepped into a national media spotlight in hopes of giving her case exposure.

In the process, their lives have been open to threats from strangers mainly through a web site the Kesse family set up, www.jenniferkesse.com, to find Jennifer. The site features case information, family letters and message boards.

Anonymous posters were able to make threats online. However, last week Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill making it a second-degree felony to send threats to kill or do bodily injury whether it’s signed or anonymous online.

The law, which takes effect Oct. 1, allows a person to be sentence up to 15 years in prison, according to state statutes.

“What it really did, it just truly brought the law into the 21st Century,” said Drew Kesse, Jennifer's father who lobbied for the bill introduced by Rep. Janet Adkins R-Fernadina Beach. “I think it’s going to help many families. ... It’s amazing how we do everything by computer now and how we didn’t have that included in the law in Florida.”

A 27-year-old man finally was admitted into a hospital and went before a judge after he made threats towards the Kesse family for years online.

And on Jennifer’s birthday, May 20, the Kesse family was in court for the five-day trial of a Georgia man who called himself the “Catch Me Killer,” falsely claiming he killed 16 people — including Jennifer Kesse. He was convicted of making false statements after he broadcast himself on Youtube, Kesse said.

“You just can’t go after people and threaten them,” he said recalling when he was turned down for an injunction in Manatee County courts when threats were made online towards his family.

Rep. Bill Galvano R-Bradenton, supported the bill which passed unanimously through the House last month.

“The existing statute didn’t reference electronic communication. Electronic communication is how we communicate today. And as beneficial as it has been, it’s also been a hotbed for problems,” he said. “One such issue is the ability to send threats and to be anonymous. This is an added tool. We need to have that in place.”

Mark Lipinski, a criminal defense attorney based in Bradenton, said there could be constitutional challenges arising from the new law.

“Mainly evidential, an unacted thought to do violence to a person is not a crime,” he said. “A person may think or even speak horrible violent things, but without some sort of act, it’s legal. The problem with written language is that it always depends on the context. People always talk in terms of metaphors”

Galvano said he doesn’t see a constitutional issue with the new law. He noted it could help in cases of bullying in schools.

“When the speech rises to the level that it becomes injurious to people, there’s the ability to regulate it. So, I don’t see the constitutional issue,” he said.

“There will be challenges. The challenge will come from someone (writing) an e-mail — that states someone wants to hurt or kill someone. They will not want to be guilty of doing that. Is it good policy for those types of messages to be sent unchecked?”

Lipinski said the issue is so widespread that many people could potentially face charges.

“A lot of ex-boyfriends and ex-girlfriends are going to be in trouble. A lot of ex-husbands and ex-wives are going to be arrested after sending an e-mail. They’ll be in jail. Everyone’s going to be in jail because everyone’s going to do it. They will have to set up a ‘You hurt my feelings’ court,” he said. “Of course, every once in a while someone really and truly says things and they mean them. And of course, this is where this law is coming from.”

But for the Kesse family, the law brings some comfort.

It makes them feel “not only safer, but more confident to deal with anyone because the of the law — if they are to threaten us again,” Kesse said. “We’ll see. We’re still looking for Jennifer.”

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