NEW YORK (AP) – Dozens of former prosecutors are questioning the government’s handling of a case against two indicted attorneys who could face nearly 50 years of imprisonment for burning an empty police vehicle in New York City last month .
Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman, a pair of young Brooklyn lawyers, face federal counts that would take at least 45 years’ imprisonment if convicted of all counts, including conspiracy.
No one was injured in the attack, which was the result of an outbreak of demonstrations after George Floyd’s death.
A magistrate judge had released the lawyers on bail, but they were again held after federal prosecutors in Brooklyn appealed the decision. The 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on Tuesday.
Fifty-six former federal prosecutors urged the court, in a written briefing, to reject the government’s efforts to keep the lawyers pending trial, calling it “against the law and our collective decades of experience “.
Prosecutors from the US Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn defended their request to keep the lawyers in prison pending trial, saying they had violated their oaths and crossed a holy line by turning to the police.
“These were especially lawyers who had every reason to know what they were doing wrong,” said US assistant lawyer David Kessler to a federal appeals court on Tuesday. “Committing these crimes essentially required a fundamental change in mindset.”
The appeals board did not judge whether or not to release the lawyers, but expressed its horror at the incendiary bomb, with one judge calling the whole case unimaginable.
Several former prosecutors not involved in the case told The Associated Press that the prosecution was based more on politics than public security.
“The government seems to be doing everything it can to punish the people charged with these protests as harshly as possible, and they go way too far here,” said Duncan Levin, a former prosecutor who worked for the United States prosecutor in Brooklyn.
“This case should have been brought to court,” he added. “This seems more than something like scare and made-up charges by the federal government.”
Lucy Lang, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan, called mandatory prison terms extreme and “a holdover from a bygone era of draconian policies that have harmed families and communities for decades.”
Amid clashes between police and protesters on May 30, security cameras shot Rahman, a 31-year-old human rights lawyer, who described prosecutors as a molotov cocktail in a police vehicle and set the console on fire.
Officers arrested the lawyers a short time later, saying they had found a lighter, a Bud Light beer bottle filled with toilet paper, and a gas tank in the back of a minivan owned by Mattis, a 32-year-old corporate lawyer. Prosecutors allege that the lawyers intended to distribute and toss other Molotov cocktails.
The US Attorney’s Office in Brooklyn sued another woman in a separate incendiary bomb that was directed at four New York City police officers the same night. Prosecutors also later charged a homeless man in a third arson with an NYPD vehicle, but then released him after concluding that they had arrested the wrong person.
“Those who attack NYPD officers or vehicles are not demonstrators,” said US attorney Richard Donoghue in a statement. “They are criminals and they will be treated as such.”
Lawyer Paul Schechtman, who represents Rahman, said the lawyers got caught up in the passion of the demonstration, but “still knew enough about them to choose their target so that no one would be harmed.”
Schechtman quoted a phrase often attributed to Robert Morgenthau, the former longtime Manhattan prosecutor, saying the young lawyers were guilty of “first degree stupidity” at worst.
“It is an evening when really nice people have lost their way,” said Schechtman. “You could lose your mind in an instant or even an hour on such an evening.”
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