The mother of Barrett Brown, a jailed journalist and activist who faces multiple charges, was sentenced to six months of probation and fined $1,000 today by a judge in Dallas.
The Associated Press reported that Karen Lancaster McCutchin “apologized Friday in Dallas federal court for hiding the laptops from agents during a March raid at their home. Her son faces three separate federal indictments and has gotten widespread attention among groups who believe he’s being unfairly prosecuted.”
The federal judge hearing her case declined to give her jail time. And, the following exchange took place in court:
“My better judgment was clouded by my maternal instinct,” McCutchin said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Paul Stickney said McCutchin’s crime “does not warrant any jail sentence at all.”
“I feel for you, as a parent,” Stickney told McCutchin, adding: “I know you did the best you could.”
While Brown’s mother will not serve time in prison, Free Barrett Brown, a group raising awareness about Brown’s case, reacted to the news.
“There’s no better symbol of the unjust persecution of Barrett Brown, than the misguided and needless case against his own mother,” the group declared in a statement. “When Brown made a fateful decision to spend the night away from his apartment on March 5, 2012, he could not have known that he’d be placing his loved ones at significant legal risk.”
“As the result of an FBI raid the next day, his mom faced a charge of obstructing the execution of a search warrant. Perhaps under pressure and with few other options, she later pleaded guilty, and admitted to attempting to conceal two laptop computers.”
“There can be no real justice as the FBI and [Justice Department] use family members to intimidate, harass and pressure others,” the group further declared.
Brown faces multiple charges including one count of internet threats, one count of conspiracy to make publicly available restricted personal information of an employee of the United States, one count of retaliation against a federal law enforcement officer, one count of traffic in stolen authentication features, one count of access device fraud, ten counts of aiding and abetting identity theft, one count of concealment of evidence and one count of corruptly concealing evidence. Altogether, Brown could be sentenced to up to 105 years in jail if convicted of all the above offenses.
The offenses stem from conduct that Brown allegedly engaged in after linking to client list in a Stratfor email.
Brown’s case has attracted attention because, at issue, is the right to link. Brown is accused of sharing a link to private data, which was contained in a Stratfor email.
The First Amendment is also implicated as well. Brown is charged with concealing information related to journalistic sources and his own work products. And it also appears the government was not pleased that the focus of his work was the operations of private security and intelligence companies so they chose to target him with this prosecution.
Earlier in September, a district court judge in Dallas issued a gag order prohibiting lawyers for Barrett Brown from discussing the case with media.
The gag order on Brown and his defense team constituted a prior restraint on speech to impede the ability of members of the press to do their jobs and report on what is happening with the case. But, for the government, it restored a level of secrecy to the process that the government could rely upon to punish Brown for his alleged conduct to the maximum extent possible. No longer would they have to struggle with the background noise of supporters referencing details shared by the defense in order to build opposition to the government’s legal maneuverings.
Since the gag order, Brown’s case has received increased attention. David Carr of The New York Times wrote that Brown’s past history with Anonymous and other online groups, which view “sowing mayhem as very much a part of their work,” makes his “version of journalism” harder to “pin down” and defend. Yet, he noted that Brown is not accused of stealing any data from Stratfor or any other organization or government institution. He is accused of linking to something that was part of a “trove of documents.”
Journalists from other news organizations link to stolen information frequently. Just last week, The New York Times, The Guardian and ProPublica collaborated on a significant article about the National Security Agency’s effort to defeat encryption technologies. The article was based on, and linked to, documents that were stolen by Edward J. Snowden, a private contractor working for the government who this summer leaked millions of pages of documents to the reporter Glenn Greenwald and The Guardian along with Barton Gellman of The Washington Post.
By trying to criminalize linking, the federal authorities in the Northern District of Texas — Mr. Brown lives in Dallas — are suggesting that to share information online is the same as possessing it or even stealing it. In the news release announcing the indictment, the United States attorney’s office explained, “By transferring and posting the hyperlink, Brown caused the data to be made available to other persons online, without the knowledge and authorization of Stratfor and the card holders.”
Josh Stearns of the media reform group, Free Press, suggested after Carr’s op-ed the case was important because, “Links are the connective tissue of the Internet. They enable us to share news, discover new information, dig deeper into issues and give credit to sources. The government’s effort to criminalize linking is akin to rewiring how the Internet works. It will have a chilling effect on how journalists report on sensitive government matters.”
Brown’s trial on the first set of charges is currently scheduled for April 28, 2014. In the months to come, expect his case to remain a focus of press freedom groups concerned about the government’s prosecution.