Californian Sentenced to 3 Years in Prison Over Threats to US Journalists

A federal court in Manhattan sentenced a man to three years in prison this week for sending threatening text messages to the family of a journalist.

Robert Lemke, a 36-year-old from the San Francisco, California area, had earlier pleaded guilty to one count of making threatening interstate communications.

Prosecutors told the court that threatening text and audio messages were sent to approximately 50 people between November 2020 and early January.

Lemke refused to accept the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said in a statement.

“[Lemke] sent messages threatening dozens of victims, including journalists, elected officials, and their families, for the perceived offense of stating the facts,” Williams said.

“Rather than attempting to effect change through the lawful forms of expression that all of us Americans still enjoy, Lemke sought to quell freedom of expression, to intimidate and instill fear in others by threats of violence,” the attorney added.

At least one message was sent to a New York-based journalist during the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

The message read: “[The journalist’s] words are putting you and your family at risk. We are nearby, armed and ready.”

Julia Gatto, the lawyer representing Lemke, said in court documents that her client had a history of mental illness and drinking problems, but no history of violence, The New York Times reported.

Lemke was “egged on by the incendiary rhetoric” and “consumed with the narrative that the election had been stolen from Donald Trump,” Gatto wrote.

At least three phone numbers and various electronic accounts were used by Lemke in an attempt to hide his identity, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York.

Prosecutors did not identify those targeted by Lemke. But after Monday’s ruling, CNN’s chief media correspondent, Brian Stelter, said he and fellow news anchor Don Lemon were among those targeted.

In an article published on CNN’s website, Stelter, the Reliable Sources host, described receiving text messages in November 2020.

“One of the texts included a photo of my father’s grave site. Another text described my mother’s house, implying he was there,” Stelter said.

Stelter said that his colleague Lemon had told the court he feared for the safety of himself and his partner, with some messages saying that the news anchor could be abducted.

Stelter wrote that he agreed to testify at the trial, “in the hope that this case would send a message against the pervasive harassment of journalists.”

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists said the conviction and sentencing served as “important acknowledgements from the U.S. justice system that threatening messages have a chilling effect on public discourse.”

“Lemke’s case is an important example of how law enforcement can establish real consequences for those who violently threaten journalists. We urge U.S. authorities to continue taking this kind of intimidation seriously,” the CPJ’s U.S. and Canada program coordinator, Katherine Jacobsen, said in a statement.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press.

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