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Wednesday, Sep 20, 2017
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Trial begins for man accused of threatening to kill Tampa federal judge

TAMPA — Jason Jerome Springer was in jail awaiting trial on a firearms charge when he heard inmates talking about a case that had made the news.

This one involved six defendants, all of whom had received lengthy sentences. The federal judge who handed them down, Elizabeth Kovachevich, was the same one handling Springer's case. It was around that time, the inmates said, that they heard Springer threaten Kovachevich's life.

They would later tell investigators he prayed that she would die, that he would kill her if released from jail, and that he wanted to fly an explosives-packed drone into her office.

"Payback doesn't pay," Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel George told a jury Monday.

That jury will decide if Springer, 39, did indeed threaten the judge's life, an allegation that led the 80-year-old judge to recuse herself from Springer's gun case. Kovachevich is among the witnesses expected to testify in the trial.

In opening statements Monday afternoon, Assistant U.S. Attorney Daniel George said that Springer admitted in an interview with investigators that he wished the judge would die.

But defense attorney Daniel Hernandez argued that anything Springer said was nothing more than talk.

"I believe the evidence is going to show there was no plan, no true threat, no intention to retaliate," Hernandez said.

Springer is "a peace-loving man," who loves his wife and cares for his family, Hernandez said. He is an American citizen, born in Germany, raised Baptist before converting to Islam. He felt he was being treated unfairly in the gun case because of his Muslim faith, Hernandez said.

Before opening statements, both sides argued before U.S. District Judge James D. Whittemore about the relevance of evidence suggesting that Springer had sympathies for the terrorist group ISIS.

Hernandez told the judge that such evidence would be unfairly prejudicial to Springer. The case, he said, is about words and threats, not alleged terrorist sympathies.

"You don't have to be a member of ISIS to threaten a judge," he said.

Whittemore, while expressing "grave doubts" about the relevance of such testimony, ultimately decided to allow it.

Springer, who had a prior felony marijuana conviction, also is accused of tampering with witnesses in his firearms case. And he was seen on video surveillance last year handling a weapon at a gun range, which is illegal for a convicted felon. With him were his wife and two friends.

The evidence includes recorded phone calls he made from jail. In those calls, Springer told his wife to instruct their friends not to disclose the kind of weapon he used, George told the jury. His belief was that if they could not identify the weapon, he could not be convicted.

Jurors will hear those calls. They will also hear from some of the inmates who said they heard Springer threaten the judge.

The trial is expected to last three days.

Contact Dan Sullivan at dsullivan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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