Black Lives Matter Protesters Face Life Sentence For Splashing Paint In Utah
Black Lives Matter protesters who splashed paint on a prosecutor’s office in Utah last month could be handed a life sentence.
It comes after Salt Lake City District Attorney Sim Gill, whose office was targeted during a July 9 protest against racial inequality, issued charges accusing them of acting as a ‘gang’.
The incident occurred in Salt Lake City in Utah, with prosecutors saying on Wednesday, August 5, the proposed punishment was justified because the protesters worked together to cause thousands of dollars worth of damage.
The felony criminal mischief charges are more serious because they carry a gang enhancement. According to Utah’s criminal code, these ‘gang enhancements’ are applied to ‘offences committed in concert with two or more person or in relation to a criminal street gang’.
However, critics – including the city’s mayor – say the punishment does not fit the alleged crime, with many calling the felony charges excessive and saying it doesn’t apply in this particular situation.
A lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) told AP News prosecutors are effectively ‘calling participants in a protest gang members’.
Mayor Erin Mendenhall in particular condemned the gang upgrade, saying in a tweet the ‘potential punishment facing some protesters is excessive’.
‘While I believe there should be consequences for breaking the law, the potential to spend life in prison for buying paint is too severe,’ she continued.
In a video shared alongside the tweet, Mendenhall said:
If a crime is committed there should be a consequence, but that consequence needs to be proportioned to the crime itself. And in this case where we’re seeing the potential for an individual to spend a lifetime in prison for buying paint, that is too extreme.
I don’t agree with the extent and the potential of these charges and I hope the criminal justice system won’t take it that far.
Madalena McNeil, who is facing a potential life sentence over felony criminal mischief and riot charges over the incident, described the charges as ‘so far beyond just the enforcement of the law’, adding, ‘It feels retaliatory,’ The Guardian reports.
Charging documents say McNeil bought red paint at a Home Depot before the July 9 demonstration, with charges stating she later yelled at and shifted her weight as if to slam into police during the protest.
‘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.’
Mr Gill, a Democrat who said he had participated in Black Lives Matter protests himself and declined to charge other protesters accused of curfew violations, downplayed the potential life sentence such charges carry.
‘I don’t think anyone is going to be going to prison on this,’ he said. Plea deals are said to often be used in cases such as these to avoid a full sentence.
Still, he argued there’s ‘some people who want to engage in protest [who] want to be absolved of any behaviour’, adding: ‘This is not about protest, this is about people who are engaging in criminal conduct.’
More than 30 people have been charged with various crimes in Salt Lake county since protests began in May, with similar first-degree felony counts being filed against people accused of flipping and burning a police car on May 30.
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Utah State Legislature
SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall/Twitter