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The state Supreme Court has reversed the conviction of Waterford resident Stephen J. Krijger, who spent five months in prison after a New London jury found him guilty in 2009 of threatening the Waterford town attorney.
Krijger had cursed at attorney Nicholas F. Kepple and invoked a horrific car accident that had severely injured Kepple's son following a hearing at the Huntington Street courthouse in New London. The hearing concerned a longstanding zoning dispute about debris on Krijger's property at 18 Totoket Road in Quaker Hill.
"More of what happened to your son is going to happen to you," Krijger told Kepple.
After Kepple asked, "What did you say?" Krijger responded, "I'm going to be there to watch."
The Supreme Court concluded that Krijger's statements, though offensive, did not rise to the level of a true threat and are entitled to the protection of the First Amendment despite their inflammatory nature. Justice Richard N. Palmer authored the decision, which was published online this week but will be officially released on Sept. 2.
The court ordered that the case be sent back to the sentencing judge, Matthew E. Frechette, who will enter a judgment of acquittal. The conviction will be removed from Krijger's record, according to Senior Assistant Public Defender Richard E. Condon Jr., who represented Krijger in the appeal.
"The Supreme Court takes First Amendment matters very seriously, and this was one where he was wrongly convicted," Condon said. "You can have an angry outburst that may hurt someone's feelings, but if from a reasonable person's viewpoint, the comment itself is ambiguous and the surrounding circumstances do not support a reasonable interpretation that the individual is going to actually harm you, then it is protected."
Krijger, 54, could not be reached for comment.
Kepple, who is now a probate judge in the regional court that covers the towns of Stonington, Groton, North Stonington and Ledyard, did not return a phone call Tuesday afternoon.
Senior Assistant State's Attorney Mitchell Brody, who handled the appeal for the state, declined to comment.
According to the court record, Krijger had just learned that the town was seeking about $6,000 in fines when he approached Kepple and Zoning Enforcement Officer Michael Glidden outside the courthouse uttered the alleged threat.
Kepple cursed at Krijger and Krijger responded in kind. The exchange lasted about 15 to 20 seconds before Kepple and Glidden crossed the street to get away from Krijger, according to the record. After Kepple and Glidden went to the cars, Krijger approached Glidden and apologized for his outburst, telling him he hoped it would not adversely affect their working relationship.
Kepple reported the exchange two days later, telling police he was terrified by Krijger, whose face was red and who had spit in the corners of his mouth as he was speaking. Krijger was arrested and assigned a public defender.
The case went to trial in New London Superior Court before a jury of six people, with Senior Assistant State's Attorney Sarah E. Steere prosecuting. Krijger was represented by then-attorney John M. Newson, who has since been appointed as a Superior Court judge. The jury convicted Krijger of second-degree threatening and second-degree breach of peace, and Judge Frechette sentenced him the following week.
Krijger appealed his conviction to the state Appellate Court, which upheld the jury verdict with one judge, Douglas S. Lavine, dissenting. The Supreme Court agreed to take the case and heard arguments on Oct. 28, 2013.