The boy with the guitar is Josh Pillault of Oxford, Mississippi. Josh is 19 years old. For the last nine months he has been in prison for roughly the same “crime” as Justin Carter has been accused of committing in Texas.
While playing an online game called “Runescape” last year, Josh responded to another player who repeatedly told him to kill himself by saying that he would kill himself and then shoot up his local school. A few days later, the Pillault household was attacked by a SWAT team composed of agents from the FBI and ATF. “They surrounded our house and climbed up the side,” Josh’s mother, Stacey, told me on the phone this afternoon. “They had M16s. They dragged us out into the front yard.” They found neither weapons — “I don’t have weapons in my home,” Stacey says — nor any reason that Josh would have to hurt anybody. Nevertheless, they took Josh into custody.
There, Stacey says, authorities asked Josh “if he wanted an attorney.” Josh, unfamiliar with legal procedure, asked if he needed one. “Not if you want to get out faster,” was the reply. So Josh spoke to them without a lawyer. He was charged with making threats in interstate and foreign commerce, and with threatening property damage and was denied bail, with no bond. Arguing that he was unlikely to be acquitted at trial, Josh’s attorney encouraged him to plead guilty to one count of making threats in interstate and foreign commerce and to deny the remaining charges. In five days, he’ll have been inside for nine months.
I asked when Josh will get out. “We don’t know,” Stacey told me. “There’s no sentence. He has to go for mental evaluation, then they’ll pass sentence. The first evaluation said that he’s not a danger but they’re going to do another one anyway. He could be in for up to ten years, and have to pay up to $250,000.”
Leaving aside the fact that Josh seems to be protected by the First Amendment, this case makes little sense to me. Josh’s words were treated as a federal crime on the grounds that he had made “threats in interstate and foreign commerce.” But if the “victim” was in another state then surely the likelyhood of Josh actually going through with it are diminished? His interlocuter was, as it were, out of shooting range. Why, when they had seen that they had made a huge mistake, did they continue with the case? And most important: If the federal government considers Josh to be a serious threat on the grounds of mental illness, why would they determine a prison sentence on those grounds rather than send him immediately to a facility that deals with the mentally ill?
I ask what has been the hardest thing about his being away. ”We had to put Josh’s childhood dog to sleep a few days after he was arrested,” Stacey tells me. “We had the appointment to put him to sleep set for the day after Josh was arrested. Josh called me repeatedly and begged me to wait until he could be there with him but as soon as it became apparent that he was not coming home anytime soon we had to go ahead and put Scooter down. I think that has been one of the hardest things for Josh to deal with.” “Luckily, he is in a local prison, so I can visit him every Tuesday.”
What will happen next? ”I’m so upset with the attorney,” Stacey told me. “I’m not sure what happens next. I’ve felt helpless. Josh is going to be a convicted felon for the rest of his life. Hopefully, there is an attorney who will take this up pro-bono.”
“When Sandy Hook happened, I asked Josh if he’d got any trouble in prison,” Stacey says, sadly. “He didn’t understand the question. So I said, ‘well, sugar, that’s what they’re saying you had planned to do.’ He was so upset.”