A former University of Maryland honors student accused of contemplating a campus shooting rampage accepted a plea deal Tuesday, and prosecutors said the case was evidence that authorities are responding threats with vigilance.
Alexander G. Song 2nd appeared in a Prince George's Countymental health courtroom and pleaded guilty to charges triggered by online posts, which police said included these words: "hopefully I kill enough people to make it to national news."
Prosecutors said they offered Song a deal without a prison sentence in part because he had no weapons and there was no evidence that he planned to carry out his threat. Yet, after high-profile shootings across the nation, county prosecutors linked Song's case to the killings in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater and on Virginia Tech's campus.
Law enforcement experts said police nationwide have refocused their attention to assure a wary public that threats are being taken seriously, particularly those involving movie theaters.
"There's no question that police, prosecutors and judges are likely to be more hard-nosed," said Eugene O'Donnell, professor of law and police science at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York. "There's way less margin for understanding after the events in Colorado."
Cases of menacing threats have surfaced across the country, according to news reports. In Cleveland, police found a cache of weapons Tuesday in the home of a man arrested for bringing a loaded pistol and knives to a movie theater. In Southern California, a man was arrested when he started yelling about a gun and referring to the Aurora shootings, although authorities did not find a weapon. And in Maine, a man faces federal charges for bringing a gun into a showing of the latest Batman movie.
Police departments nationwide have increased patrols in theaters, citing concerns of potential copycat attacks after 12 people were killed and another 58 injured in the Colorado rampage during a screening of the"The Dark Knight Rises."
Police arrested an Annapolis man last week for pantomiming a gun at a movie theater during the same film, causing patrons to run away screaming. Kyle Nolan Tanner, 25, was charged with disorderly conduct, reckless endangerment and second-degree assault, and a judge ordered Tuesday that he have a full psychiatric evaluation.
Although no weapon was involved in that case, O'Donnell said that to take such threats lightly "would be almost malpractice."
To deter copycat attacks and restore the public's confidence, police are more inclined to show that such threats won't be tolerated, said L. Douglas Ward, director of the Division of Public Safety Leadership in the Johns Hopkins University School of Education
"Police have to be sensitive to people's fear" and investigators are more likely to air on the side of safety, Ward said. Such threats might have occurred before the Colorado attack, he said, but went under the radar. Now, as a result, "anything that happens in a movie theater is attached to this."
Song's defense attorney, Steven Vinick, agreed that each threat rightfully deserves attention.
"Every threat must be investigated thoroughly because the safety of the public must always be the primary concern," Vinick said. "But not every threat itself is a crime or requires threat of punishment, such as jail."
On Tuesday, Prince George's County State's Attorney Angela D. Alsobrooks linked Song's plea to the charges filed last week against a Crofton man accused of calling himself "a joker" and threatening a workplace shooting. Police found more than two dozen legally owned firearms in Neil Prescott's apartment after an early-morning raid. Prescott was charged with misusing the telephone.
Song, 20, was convicted on charges of disturbing activities at a school and misusing the telephone, which could have given him up to 31/2 years in prison.
As part of the plea deal, Song must continue mental health treatment, stay on his prescribed medication, complete 200 hours of community service, abide by a 9 p.m. curfew and obey his parents, into whose custody he was released.
"If they say no, it's as if I said no," Judge Patrice E. Lewis told Song.
Prosecutors told the judge that if Song's case went to trial, they could prove he posted three different threats online, the last one specifically warning to "stay away from the Mall tomorrow at 1:30." When contacted by police, Song admitted he wrote the posts, prosecutors said.
In exchange for the plea, prosecutors dropped six other charges of email harassment, giving a false statement to an officer and to a state official, a second telephone misuse charge, disorderly conduct and disturbing the peace.
While police never found any weapons or evidence that Song planned to carry out the threat, Alsobrooks said that law enforcement averted "what could have been a tragic event" and said that police acted "before we could see a repeat of Virginia Tech and Colorado."
"We believe that over time, if left untreated, he could have become a threat," Alsobrooks said during a news conference at the county's district courthouse in Upper Marlboro. "We never know whether the threats are serious or not, but we take them all seriously."
Alsobrooks repeated her call for tougher laws against making generalized threats, saying she planned to lobby state lawmakers. She said that with Song undergoing treatment, he is not currently a threat to public welfare.
Song and his family declined to comment on the case.
Tuesday's court proceedings offered no explanation for why Song, an honors student who graduated in the top 10 percent of his class at Reservoir High School in Howard County, began making threats about a shooting rampage.
Song was a College Park sophomore and part of an honors science study group researching how to purify methane and convert it into a renewable energy source. After the threats, he was banned from campus and became an inpatient at a mental health facility for at least three weeks.
Song's sentencing hearing was not scheduled Tuesday, as Judge Lewis said she would prefer to see how his treatment progresses and for him to complete his community service sentence. A Sept. 13 hearing was scheduled to review his case.
"You look like you're feeling much better than when I first saw you," Judge Lewis told Song. "Is that correct?"
Song answered, "Yes, your honor."