Ninth Circuit Upholds Inmate’s Conviction for Threatening to Kill President
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
A conversation in which a jail inmate told a counselor that the inmate had sent a threatening letter to the White House was not covered by the psychotherapist-patient privilege because it did not take place in a therapeutic setting, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The panel affirmed Robert A. Romo’s conviction for threatening the president, rejecting his claims that the judge committed reversible error by admitting the testimony of his counselor, and by allowing expert testimony concerning mail-handling procedures at the White House.
Romo was charged after a 2002 conversation with Donald LaPlante at the jail in Dawson County, Mont. Romo told LaPlante, a licensed counselor serving as program director at the facility, that he sent a letter to the White House threatening to put a bullet in President Bush’s head.
LaPlante later testified that he told Romo, who had asked to meet with him, that he would have to report the letter to the authorities, but Romo proceeded to tell him exactly what he had written and that he had sent the letter to the White House.
LaPlante notified the Secret Service, which sent an agent to interview Romo. Romo confirmed that he had written and mailed a letter in which he threatened to shoot the president, and also told the agent that he would attack the president if Bush visited the jail.
The letter was not produced at trial, the prosecutor explained, because all mail addressed to the White House during that time period was diverted to a storage facility as part of a post-Sept. 11 security measure designed to avoid the risk of anthrax. Instead, the White House director of mail analysis testified that if she had read a letter with the contents Romo admitted to, she would have treated it as a direct threat against the president.
Also admitted was a document found in Romo’s cell on which he had written “So you know whos [sic] coming to kill you Mr. George W. Bush....”
A jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Montana found Romo guilty and he appealed.
Judge M. Margaret McKeown, writing for the Court of Appeals, said there was sufficient evidence to support District Judge Sam Haddon’s conclusion that the conversation between Romo and LaPlante was not a therapy session.
“The record is devoid of evidence that the meeting involved therapy, diagnosis, or treatment of any kind,” McKeown wrote. “LaPlante noted in a contemporaneous writing that he did not consider the conversation privileged, which indicates that his purpose was not to provide therapy. Consistent with LaPlante’s view, he provided no therapy or other mental health care at the meeting. Romo simply blurted out the information about the threat and seemed to understand that LaPlante would not keep his confession as a secret.”
The judge also noted that while LaPlante had seen Romo for counseling, LaPlante had a number of duties at the jail that did not involve therapy; he also taught classes, acted as a case manager, and coordinated social and religious services. “This variety of duties precludes an assumption that LaPlante’s meeting with Romo was a psychotherapy session or that Romo and LaPlante had established an exclusive psychotherapist-patient relationship,” McKeown wrote.
With regard to the admission of Gertrude Roddic’s testimony about the White House mail, McKeown agreed the testimony should have been excluded because there was no need for expert testimony on the subject and because it invaded the province of the jury to decide whether the letter was a true threat. But the error was harmless, the judge concluded, because there was “no doubt” the jury would have convicted Romo without the testimony.
Finding the letter to be a true threat, McKeown wrote, was not “a difficult call.”
The judge also rejected the contention that the evidence was insufficient. Since it is the creation and mailing of the threatening letter that constitutes the crime, not its receipt, there was no need for officials—who were just beginning to search the stored White House mail—to find Romo’s letter.
“Just as a needle might remain in a haystack despite efforts to find it, Romo’s letter apparently remained buried among the mail inside the warehouse,” the judge wrote.
Judge Ronald Gould concurred in the opinion, but Senior Judge Betty B. Fletcher, writing separately, argued that the conversation with LaPlante was privileged because the prior relationship between LaPlante and Romo was that of therapist and patient, and Romo specifically sought LaPlante out to talk about the letter because he believed “he had done something very dumb,” according to LaPlante’s testimony.
But Fletcher said the error was harmless because LaPlante’s testimony was redundant to that of the Secret Service agent.
The case is United States v. Romo, 04-30131.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company