Several Black Lives Matter protesters in Utah could face up to life in prison if they’re convicted for splashing red paint and smashing windows at the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office during demonstrations against racial injustice,The Associated Press reportedThursday.
Prosecutors announced this week that the felony criminal mischief charges, which carry a gang enhancement, are justified because protesters allegedly teamed up to cause thousands of dollars in damage.
Critics argue that the alleged crime does not match the potential punishment from the 1990s-era law.
“This is so far beyond just the enforcement of the law, it feels retaliatory,” said Madalena McNeil.
McNeil is alleged of buying red paint at Home Deport before a July 9 protest. The charging documents say she yelled at officers and shifted her weight as if to slam into police.
“It’s really frustrating and scary … I just feel so much concern for what this means for the right to protest in general,” McNeil told the AP.
Attorney Brent Huff, who is representing co-defendant Madison Alleman, said the charges are the highest degree felony in the state.
“This is usually reserved for murders and rapists,” Huff said.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill defended the elevated charges while downplaying the possibility of a life sentence, saying, “I don’t think anyone is going to be going to prison on this.”
The AP noted that criminal cases often end with plea deals to lesser charges.
“There’s some people who want to engage in protest, but they want to be absolved of any behavior,” Gill said. “This is not about protest, this is about people who are engaging in criminal conduct.”
Defense lawyer Jesse Nix, who represents protester Viviane Turman, toldThe Salt Lake Tribunethat it was an “absolute conflict” for Gill to file charges relating to the damage done to his own office.
“I’m disappointed that they didn’t recognize the conflict and send it out to someone else to decide what to charge,” Nix said, “because right now, it feels like Sim Gill is upset at the damage to his beautiful building so he’s going to do everything he can to scare protesters.”
The local newspaper reported that the red paint was meant as a metaphor for Gill having blood on his hands after he declined to press charges against two officers who shot 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal as he ran from police, dropping and picking up a gun three times.
The demonstration followed weeks of nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.