Texas Grand Jury Says A GIF Is A ‘Deadly Weapon’

A Texas grand jury this week concluded that a GIF can count as a “deadly weapon,” after an animated GIF caused a journalist to have an epileptic seizure.

The GIF in question was sent by a 29-year-old John Rayne Rivello of Salisbury, Maryland, in December 2016 to a Dallas-based Newsweek Journalist, Kurt Eichenwald via Twitter as he was upset with his critical coverage of President Donald Trump.

The grand jury along with the U.S. Department of Justice issued a series of indictments against Rivello, who is accused of sending a flashing Pepe the Frog image with the intention of inducing an epileptic seizure in Eichenwald, who is already suffering from epilepsy.

An indictment from the grand jury declared he “did use and exhibit a deadly weapon”, breaking it down into “a Tweet and a Graphics Interchange Format (GIF) and an Electronic Device and Hands [sic]”.

The charge is considered as a hate crime enhancement because Rivello allegedly showed “bias or prejudice” against “persons of Jewish faith or descent,” the indictment said. Eichenwald’s father is Jewish.

Rivello had sent the seizure-inducing image in a tweet with the message, “You deserve a seizure for your post.” His alleged assault worked as intended. When Eichenwald saw the tweet, he claims to have suffered a seizure that lasted eight minutes during which he lost control of his body and mental functions.

FBI investigators found that after Rivello tweeted the said GIF, he also sent messages to his friends saying things like, “I hope this sends him into a seizure,” and “Spammed this at [Eichenwald] let’s see if he dies.”

Additional evidence received pursuant to a search warrant showed Rivello’s iCloud account contained a screenshot of a Wikipedia page for the victim, which had been altered to show a fake obituary with the date of death listed as Dec. 16, 2016. The FBI also obtained access to Rivello’s account, which allegedly was operated under the pseudonym Ari Goldstein and used @jew_goldstein as a Twitter handle.



Rivello’s iCloud account also contained screen shots from epilepsy.com with a list of commonly reported epilepsy seizure triggers, and from dallasobserver.com discussing the victim’s report to the Dallas Police Department and his attempt to identify the Twitter user.

“It was a very serious seizure,” told Eichenwald’s lawyer, Steven Lieberman. He said Eichenwald was “almost fully incapacitated for several days” and also had difficulty speaking for a period of time after the episode.

“What Mr Rivello did with his Twitter message was no different from someone sending a bomb in the mail or sending an envelope filled with anthrax spores,” Eichenwald’s lawyer, Steven Lieberman told Newsweek, where the journalist works as a senior writer.

Rivello’s case is likely the first time someone has been indicted for using “the internet as a weapon that causes physical harm,” New York Defense Attorney Tor Ekeland told NBC News.

Rivello’s lawyer says his client is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, and has apologised to Eichenwald and is seeking counselling. Rivello already faces a federal interstate domestic violence charge.

The FBI arrested Rivello and charged him with violating a federal cyber-stalking law. However, he was released on bail at around 2am on Tuesday (local time) after his indictment.