SALT LAKE CITY – Several protesters have been arrested for their involvement in a protest against police brutality in Salt Lake City last month.
On July 9, hundreds of demonstrators marched outside the office of Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill after the officers involved in the deadly shooting of Bernardo Palacios were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The demonstration escalated when some people poured paint on the street and the walls of the D.A.’s office. Salt Lake City police eventually confronted protesters.
Tuesday, Madalena McNeil was arrested. She’s charged with felony criminal mischief and riot. Because several people were involved, the charges carry a gang enhancement. That elevates one charge to a first-degree felony carrying a maximum possible punishment of life in prison.
According to charging documents, McNeil is accused of buying the paint that was used to deface the building. She’s also accused of shifting her weight ‘as if to slam into’ an officer.
“The public allegations are that I was standing in front of the crowd when police officers bull rushed folks,” McNeil said. “I know I haven’t done the things that I am accused of doing.”
McNeil, who describes herself as a community organizer who hands out water and masks at protests, is concerned about the looming legal battle.
“It would be impossible to look at life in prison and not be nervous,” McNeil said.
She also believes police are responsible for instigating a violent confrontation she recorded on her cell phone.
“I was shoved to the ground multiple times. I had bruises all over my arms and the rest of my body,” McNeil described.
Aside from any criminal ramifications, McNeil worries about the message charges this severe will send to other young adults who want to have their voices heard.
“A consequence of what is happening is people are getting scared. People are scared to attend protests, to speak out, to exercise what is a Constitutional right,” McNeil said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall described the possible punishment as ‘excessive’ in a video posted on Twitter.
I feel the potential punishment facing some protestors 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. #utpol #slc pic.twitter.com/QTnsUZu7s7— SLC Mayor Erin Mendenhall (@slcmayor) August 5, 2020
“In this case where we are seeing the potential for an individual to spend a lifetime in prison for buying paint. That is too extreme,” Mendenhall said.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill is defending the decision to file the charges. He says about 30 people have been charged since protests began in late May.
“This is not about chilling anybody’s speech. It is about, if you are going to engage in criminal conduct then there are consequences for that,” Gill said.
He added, even if convicted, it is unlikely anyone involved would be sentenced to life in prison.
“Unless someone has an extensive criminal history, unless they blow up the [sentencing] matrix, chances are no one is probably going to be going to prison on this,” Gill said.
Because the case involves damage to the District Attorney’s office building, an outside prosecutor will be brought in to avoid any conflict of interest.