Case deferred against W&M prof charged with sending harassing emails to colleagues

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David Dessler. (Courtesy Virginia Peninsula Regional Jail)

The case of a William and Mary professor who sent harassing emails to colleagues was deferred until 2019.

Judge Richard Kerns found the evidence sufficient to convict David Dessler, a tenured professor of government at William and Mary, of one count of harassment by computer in Williamsburg-James City County General District Court Wednesday.

However, Dessler will serve no jail time, as he was not convicted.

Instead, Dessler will face two years of probation monitored through area mental health providers, with a disposition deferred until May 23, 2019. If Dessler complies with the order, he will be found not guilty at that date.

Dessler is still a tenured professor at William & Mary, but his status is listed as “inactive,” college spokeswoman Suzanne Seurattan said. Dessler has been on extended medical leave for mental health reasons, resulting in his inactive status. He was found competent to stand trial in April.

In court, Dessler admitted to sending a “terribly stupid” and “angry” email on Jan. 12, to colleagues including government department chair and James City County Supervisor John McGlennon, university counsel Deborah Love, and Williamsburg prosecutor Cathy Black, among other college officials.

Dessler forwarded a copy of the email to WYDaily, which contained quotes Commonwealth’s Attorney Nate Green argued in court were threats.

In the email Dessler shared a story from “the Government Department of some college, I don’t know which,” in which the university counsel is “being strung up and strangled by the neck and she is choking and grasping for breath” by an unnamed assailant.

The email continued, “’the Mentally Ill Winner who Put These Losers to Death’ will be watching the pain, knowing that both victims, whoever they are, are swinging back and forth, wishing they could do something, anything, but they are now dead, forever, and humiliated.”

Judge Kerns described the email as “deranged rambling” after reading the email to himself in court. Before deferring the verdict, Kerns said the email is “cunning and oblique, but I do believe it’s a threat.”

University Counsel Deborah Love testified in court and said she had dealt with Dessler’s employment issues over the previous 18 months. While she had corresponded via email with him previously, she said she felt threatened by this particular email, which mentioned her by name.

“This was uniquely vile,” Love said. “It was very unsettling to see one’s own name in this email. While we did not know Dessler to be violent, I not believe I was the best person to judge that…I’m trained as a lawyer, not a mental health expert.”

Love testified she was concerned the email had signified a change in Dessler’s condition, as the email contained a “degree of outrageousness” she had not seen from Dessler before. She said she did not know what he might do next, adding she and her spouse began locking the doors to their home.

“[The email] may not make sense, but it can still be a threat,” argued Green. “Deborah Love does not have to wait for Dessler to show up at her door and start to strangle her…Love said she was put in fear by this threat.”

Defense attorney Brenton Bohannon argued that while the language in the email was “terrible” and “not polite,” the commonwealth could not prove beyond a reasonable doubt the email constituted a direct threat.

“The ‘mentally ill winner-‘ it’s tough for me to determine who or what they are,” Bohannon said. “You have to take it in a most unfavorable light to my client and that’s not how the law works.”

Dessler testified as well, and openly apologized to Judge Kerns for having to read the email in the courtroom. He said the email was sent out of frustration for being banned from campus without a hearing or due process, which he felt was unfair treatment by the college.

“The email was in poor judgement on my part,” Dessler said. “I didn’t threaten her [Love] but I was mean to her. Isn’t that protected by the First Amendment?”

Dessler was also arrested twice on Feb. 28, 2016 and March 18, 2016 for allegedly sending threatening emails, before the charges were dropped in December 2016.

According to an order from Judge Charles Maxfield, Dessler was required to have no contact with McGlennon, Love, or the Commonwealth’s Attorney while he awaited trial. According to Commonwealth’s Attorney Nate Green, that order will remain in effect during the deferment. Dessler will also not be permitted on the William and Mary campus.

Sarah Fearing contributed reporting.

WYDaily archives were used for this story.

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