Ruby, don’t take your love to town.
Mel Tillis’s song, Ruby, was sung by Kenny Rogers from the perspective of a paraplegic wounded in the war. His love, Ruby, is finding love elsewhere despite his plea for companionship.
“She’s leaving now ’cause I just heard the slamming of the door
The way I know I’ve heard it slam some 100 times before
And if I could move I’d get my gun and put her in the ground
Oh Ruby, don’t take your love to town.”
So presupposing that ol’ Kenny said these words, can he be charged with a crime?
Let’s explore. Georgia has a statute called terroristic threats and acts. OCGA 16-11-137 “(a) A person commits the offense of a terroristic threat when he or she threatens to commit any crime of violence … with the purpose of terrorizing another…” So, on its face, telling Ruby that he’s going to put her in the ground seems like a terroristic threat, right?
The threat is conditional, however, in that he sings “if I could move”, meaning that he can’t. Georgia case law says that a terroristic threat has to able to be presently carried out. Since Kenny can’t move, he can’t get a gun and can’t accomplish his threat. So that is a factor in the decision of whether to charge him.
Now that “present ability” to carry out a threat doesn’t mean the ability to do it right now. For instance, telling a police officer “when I get out of jail, I’m gonna…” has been determined present ability to carry out the threat, because more than likely, he’s going to get out of jail eventually. So if there is potential for Kenny to recover in the reasonable future, such that he can shoot Ruby, that could factor in to a charge.
Another issue, did Kenny communicate the threat to Ruby? What the law says is that the threat has to be communicated to Ruby, but not always directly. Telling someone on their voicemail that you’re going to kill them is obviously a communication designed to reach the victim. So what about telling someone in a song? I think, with the right facts, that even a song which is designed to put a specific victim in fear would qualify for a terroristic threat.
Now a song is pretty easy to show that the threat has corroboration. Plenty of people can hear it. But the statute says: “No person shall be convicted under this subsection on the uncorroborated testimony of the party to whom the threat is communicated.” That keeps Ruby from just claiming that Kenny made a threat and getting charged with a felony, although an un-corroborated threat can get a misdemeanor charge of simple assault.
Based on the totality of the circumstances, I doubt that a felony terroristic threat would be issued against Kenny. The apparent inability to carry out the threat, and the vague nature of the communication to Ruby, probably keeps Kenny out of jail.
Backstory: Mel Tillis’ song was based a couple known to Mel in Florida. In real life, Ruby was killed by her war injured husband in a murder suicide. So, in hindsight, that warrant probably needs to get issued against Kenny.
Kelly Burke, master attorney, former district attorney and magistrate judge, is engaged in private practice. He writes about the law, rock’n’roll and politics. These articles are not designed to give legal advice, but are designed to inform the public about how the law affects their daily lives. Contact Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org to comment on this article or suggest articles that you’d like to see and visit his website at www.kellyrburke.com to view prior columns.