NEW YORK — Dozens of former prosecutors are questioning the government's handling of a case against two lawyers hit with charges that could put them in prison for nearly 50 years for torching an empty New York City police vehicle last month.
Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman, a pair of young Brooklyn attorneys, face federal counts that would carry at least 45 years in prison if they are convicted of all counts, including conspiracy.
No one was injured in the attack, which came amid an eruption of demonstrations following the death of George Floyd.
A magistrate judge had freed the lawyers on bail, but they were detained again after federal prosecutors in Brooklyn appealed the decision. The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments Tuesday.
Fifty-six former federal prosecutors urged the court in a written brief to reject the government's efforts to keep the attorneys behind bars as they await trial, calling it "contrary both to the law and to our collective decades of experience."
Prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn defended their request to keep the lawyers jailed pending trial, saying they violated their oaths and crossed a sacred line by targeting the police.
"These were lawyers, in particular, who had every reason to know what they were doing was wrong," Assistant U.S. Attorney David Kessler told a federal appeals court Tuesday. "Committing these crimes required essentially a fundamental change in mindset."
The appellate panel did not rule on whether to release the lawyers on bail but expressed horror at the firebombing, with one judge calling "the whole case unimaginable."
Several former prosecutors not involved with the case told The Associated Press the prosecution appeared to be based more on politics than public safety.
"The government seems to be trying to do everything it can to punish people charged in these protests as harshly as possible, and they're going way overboard here," said Duncan Levin, a former prosecutor who worked for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn.
"This case should have been charged in state court," he added. "This seems more than anything like scare tactics and trumped-up charges by the federal government."
Lucy Lang, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan, called the mandatory prison sentences extreme and "a relic of a bygone era of draconian policies that have hurt families and communities for decades."
Amid clashes between police and protesters on May 30, surveillance cameras recorded Rahman, a 31-year-old human rights lawyer, hurling what prosecutors described as a Molotov cocktail into a police vehicle, setting fire to its console.
Officers arrested the lawyers a short time later and said they found a lighter, a Bud Light beer bottle filled with toilet paper and a gasoline tank in the back of a minivan driven by Mattis, a 32-year-old corporate attorney. Prosecutors allege the lawyers planned to distribute and throw other Molotov cocktails.
The U.S. Attorney's Office in Brooklyn indicted another woman in a separate firebombing that targeted four New York City police officers the same night. Prosecutors also later charged a homeless man in a third arson involving an NYPD vehicle, but then released him after concluding they had arrested the wrong person.
"Those who carry out attacks on NYPD officers or vehicles are not protesters," U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue said in a statement. "They are criminals and they will be treated as such."
Defense attorney Paul Schechtman, who represents Rahman, said the attorneys got caught up in the passion of the demonstration but still "had enough sense about them to pick their target so that no one would be harmed."
Quoting a phrase often attributed to Robert Morgenthau, the former longtime Manhattan district attorney, Schechtman said the young attorneys were at worst guilty of "stupidity in the first degree."
"It is one night where really fine people lost their way," Schechtman said. "One can lose one's sense in a moment or even in an hour on an evening like this."