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In 2007, an Illinois college student named Olutosin Oduwole was arrested after a campus police officer found a note promising “a murderous rampage similar to the [Virginia Tech] shooting” inside Oduwole’s locked car. Even though Oduwole insisted that the note was only a draft of some rap lyrics, he was nevertheless convicted of attempting to make a terrorist threat and sentenced to five years in prison. This March, Oduwole’s conviction was reversed on appeal, but the Illinois attorney general’s office promised to fight the reversal. Yesterday, the Illinois Supreme Court refused to review the appellate court’s decision. Oduwole is a free man.
This is great news for Oduwole—and, indeed, for everyone who cares about free speech. But it’s still worth noting that Oduwole should never have been tried in the first place. As I’ve written before, the “attempt” charge was baffling, given that, by all reasonable standards, Oduwole had not actually attempted to threaten anyone. The note was found face-down inside a locked car, where nobody would have been able to see or become alarmed by it. Police found no other evidence to support their charges.
When the appellate court reversed Oduwole’s conviction this March, it did so with a rare move known as an “outright reversal.” Rather than remanding the case for a new trial—as happens with most reversals—the appellate court essentially nullified the guilty verdict, and acquitted Oduwole of the charges against him. “The legal standard that the appellate court had to apply was whether ‘any rational juror could have found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,’ ” Oduwole’s attorney, Jeffrey Urdangen, told me in an email. “The Court here found that no rational juror could have convicted under these facts.”
Even so, the attorney general’s office still wanted to put Oduwole back in jail. Why? “Terrorism is inconsistent with civilized society and cannot be tolerated,” said Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan at the time. Who needs rationality when you’ve got rhetoric? And that’s the point. The charges against Oduwole were an obvious overreach by a prosecutor hoping to win a conviction not on the merits of the case, but by stoking the fears of a citizenry conditioned to recoil from anything labeled as terrorism. “It became just a lot of frustration, irritation that the prosecution was so hell-bent on creating hysteria and making something out of nothing,” Oduwole told the AP on Thursday.
The prosecutors won a conviction, even when they shouldn’t have, and their push to keep Oduwole in jail even after the appeals court freed him was petty, small-minded, and unjustifiable. The reversal of Oduwole’s conviction is proof that our justice system still works. But the fact that it took this long to free him proves that it ought to work a lot better than it does.