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Trial to Decide: Angry Words or True Threats?

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Salvatorre Colodonato didn’t expect to end up in jail the day last year he entered the Westminster courtroom of Superior Court Judge Mary Erickson.

So when Erickson unexpectedly ordered the 40-year-old Stanton antiques dealer to spend five months behind bars for a parole violation, Colodonato unleashed a loud slew of death threats at the judge as guards hauled him off to a holding cell.

This week, Colodonato will face charges of making terrorist threats against Erickson in an unusual trial that will feature the judge as a witness. It’s a case that focuses on the distinction between true threats and angry words said on the spur of the moment.

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Colodonato said he is not a violent person and that the statements he made were harmless--angry words uttered during an emotional outburst. But prosecutors say he meant what he said and that the judge took the threat seriously enough to consider buying a handgun.

“He did something with an intent to threaten [the judge],” said Orange County Deputy Dist. Atty. Ebrahim Baytieh. “We believe what he did was a violation of the law.”

The trial will take place in Los Angeles County Superior Court in Norwalk. Kathleen O’Leary, the presiding judge of the Orange County Superior Court, transferred the case because it involved a local jurist.

Colodonato’s outburst occurred at a preliminary hearing in November. Free after posting $15,000 bail on drug and weapons charges, Colodonato expected a routine hearing before being allowed to return to Stanton. But when Erickson ordered him jailed for five months for violating terms of his parole on a 1992 misdemeanor battery conviction, Colodonato’s temper burst.

Prosecutors said Colodonato began yelling at his attorney, then, while being escorted to a jail cell, he directed his anger at Erickson. Jayda Davis, a deputy marshal who had rushed to the courtroom, said Colodonato threatened to start a prison riot and spoke of his plans upon being released.

“I’m going to get her. . . . The day I get out of jail will be the day I kill that judge,” Colodonato allegedly told Davis, who recounted the incident at a preliminary hearing.

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Erickson was not available for comment, but another deputy marshal who investigated the incident said that the judge took the threat seriously enough to warn family members and consider taking handgun-training courses.

The deputy marshal, Matt Garner, said at a preliminary hearing that Erickson told him a handgun was an “appropriate” way to defend herself against the threat.

Colodonato’s attorney, Michael Molfetta, does not deny his client made the statements but said they were not to be taken seriously. Colodonato was distraught at the surprise ruling and possibly on drugs at the time of his outburst, Molfetta said.

“He didn’t mean it. He was a guy who was taken aback by the fact he was taken into custody,” Molfetta said, adding that the judge “never heard the threat.”

Judges and legal experts say threats against judges are rare. Though jurists at times receive angry letters or phone calls from defendants, most of the communications do not prompt concern. Threats against Orange County judges have numbered about 10 per year since 1997, according to Capt. Paul Gushard, head of the Judicial Protection Unit for the county Marshall’s office.

“Judges understandably get a lot of irate letters simply because of the nature of their job, but to rise to the level of death threat or physical harm--it’s not common,” he said.

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Robert A. Pugsley, a professor at Southwestern University College of Law, said a defendant’s right to state an opinion is limited when it comes to violent threats--even if made in the heat of the moment.

“A judge personifies justice and plays a central role in judicial proceedings,” he said. “It hits directly at the ability of the system to operate without fear of retaliation.”

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