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Demonstrators supporting the Black Lives Matter movement who allegedly defaced the district attorney’s offices in Salt Lake City, Utah, are facing life in prison if convicted on the most serious of charges.
In July, a protest against alleged systemic racism by police turned violent after some demonstrators splashed red paint on the street in front of the DA’s offices as well as the building itself, while also breaking out several windows.
Prosecutors said on Wednesday that the felony criminal mischief charges are far more serious because they include a gang enhancement, The Associated Press reported.
They added that the charges, while extreme to critics, are justified because demonstrators worked in conjunction with each other to inflict untold thousands of dollars’ worth of damage on the building and the streets, leaving taxpayers footing the bill.
Press Release: Recap of SLCPD actions during yesterday’s protesthttps://t.co/7Idzou0euy pic.twitter.com/9y2lhuWKGP
— SLC Police Dept. (@slcpd) July 10, 2020
“This is so far beyond just the enforcement of the law, it feels retaliatory,” Madalena McNeil, who herself is now facing a potential life sentence over felony criminal mischief and riot charges, told the AP.
According to charging documents, McNeil bought red paint at a local Home Depot ahead of the July 9 protest which came after a court ruling regarding a fatal police shooting.
The documents also state that she intentionally slammed into police officers during the demonstration.
“It’s really frustrating and scary,” she said. “I just feel so much concern for what this means for the right to protest in general.”
The AP notes further:
The potential life sentence stands out as harsh punishment even among other people facing felony charges stemming from protests around the country. In Portland, Oregon, for instance, a 32-year-old man is facing up to 20 years on an arson charge alleging he broke into a building that houses the police headquarters and set an office on fire.
That said, it’s not likely that the demonstrators in Utah will face any prison time, according to Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill.
If they were convicted as charged, the accused would be sentenced to at least five years behind bars. However, Gill said in most cases, defendants are allowed to plead to lesser charges.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be going to prison on this,” he said.
That may stand to reason. The AP described Gill as “a generally reform-minded Democrat who said he has participated in Black Lives Matter protests himself and declined to charge dozens of protesters accused of curfew violations.”
However, the prosecutor went on to argue that “there’s some people who want to engage in protest, but they want to be absolved of any behavior. This is not about protest, this is about people who are engaging in criminal conduct.”
One defense lawyer accused city prosecutors of stereotyping their clients of color.
“You are calling participants in a protest gang members,” ACLU attorney Jason Groth told The AP.
Another blasted the prospect of a life sentence for his client.
“No one should get life in prison for putting paint on a building,” said Jesse Nix, who represents Viviane Turman, one of 30 people arrested in the city for various crimes involving protests following the George Floyd incident in May.
But Gill noted that neither should people simply get away with destroying the public’s property.
“We have to have some agreement of what constitutes protected First Amendment speech,” he said. “When you cross that threshold, should you be held accountable or not?”
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