A woman who allegedly pushed a police officer and bought red paint for a Black Lives Matter protest could face up to life in prison after Utah authorities charged her under a law meant to punish gang members.
“This is so far beyond just the enforcement of the law, it feels retaliatory,” said Madalena McNeil, who is facing a potential life sentence if convicted of felony criminal mischief and riot charges.
Prosecutors say the charges are worthy of a gang enhancement, which allows them to increase the punishment if McNeil is found guilty. They argued in court documents Wednesday that protesters worked together to cause thousands of dollars in damage during an anti-racism protest in Salt Lake City last month.
McNeil is accused of buying red paint at a Home Depot before the protest on July 9, which was held to denounce a court ruling on a fatal police shooting. Court documents allege that McNeil also yelled at police and shifted her weight as if to slam into an officer.
“It’s really frustrating and scary,” the 28-year-old activist said. “I just feel so much concern for what this means to protest in general.”
McNeil says she was forced to resign from her job at a nonprofit after she was charged along with several others who attended the protest.
“This is the highest degree felony,” said attorney Brent Huff, who represents co-defendant Madison Alleman. “This is usually reserved for murders and rapists.”
Jesse Nix, who represents accused protester Viviane Turman, also denounced the charges. “No one should get life in prison for putting paint on a building,” he said.
Jason Groth, a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah, criticized prosecutors for using a law meant to target street gangs. “You are calling participants in a protest gang members,” he said.
More than 30 people have been charged with various crimes in Salt Lake County since anti-racism protests broke out following the death of George Floyd in May.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill says the protesters likely won’t spend time behind bars, because such cases usually end with a plea to a lesser count.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be going to prison for this,” Gill, a Democrat, told the Associated Press.
“There’s some people who want to engage in protest, but they want to be absolved of any behaviour,” he said. “This is not about protest. This is about people who are engaging in criminal conduct.”
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall has denounced the charges as too extreme.
“I feel the potential punishment facing some protestors is excessive,” she tweeted. “While I believe there should be consequences for breaking the law, the potential to spend life in prison for buying paint is too severe.”
“I just don’t think any of the allegations against me warrant life in prison,” McNeil told KUTV.
“It sends a very extreme message to anyone who’s considering acting out their civil right to protest.”
—With files from The Associated Press