Molotov Cocktail Suspects Urooj Rahman And Colinford Mattis Released On Bail Two lawyers could face life in prison for allegedly firebombing an empty police car during a protest in New York. Prosecutors call it a calculated crime. Supporters say they're being singled out.
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Lawyers Charged With Seven Felonies In Molotov Cocktail Attack Out On Bail

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Lawyers Charged With Seven Felonies In Molotov Cocktail Attack Out On Bail

Lawyers Charged With Seven Felonies In Molotov Cocktail Attack Out On Bail

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis were kids from immigrant families who made good, both graduates of prestigious law schools. She represented tenants in housing court. He was an associate at a corporate firm in Manhattan. Now they face life in prison in one of the government's highest-profile cases against protesters. Dina Temple-Raston of NPR's Investigations Team reports.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whose street?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Our street.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whose street?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Our street.

DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The night of May 29 in Brooklyn was chaotic.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whose street?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Our street.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whose street?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Our street.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Whose street?

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: Our street.

TEMPLE-RASTON: As curfew drew near, police in riot gear began to make arrests, and protesters started throwing water bottles and bricks.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Our street.

UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: This assembly is unlawful. If you do not disburse, you will be subject to arrest.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The NYPD tried to break up the crowd with pepper spray and swinging batons.

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DIANA RICHARDSON: The NYPD is being excessively aggressive with this crowd here, and it is inappropriate. I'm Assemblywoman Diana Richardson. I'm an elected official, and they just pepper sprayed me for no reason.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Urooj Rahman was there, too. A local journalist stopped her for an interview. And her face was covered with a scarf, and she was wearing a black T-shirt that read, the struggle continues.

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UROOJ RAHMAN: This protest is a long time coming. I think that the mayor should have pulled their - his police department back the way that the mayor in Minneapolis did.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But the part of the interview that ricocheted around the Internet was this.

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RAHMAN: This s*** won't ever stop unless we [expletive] take it all down. And that's why the anger is being expressed tonight in this way.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Prosecutors say an NYPD surveillance camera captured images of Rahman a short time later. She was riding in the passenger seat of a van. Her friend Colinford Mattis was driving. What allegedly happened next, defense attorney Paul Shechtman says, is the basis for the charges against them.

PAUL SHECHTMAN: It's alleged that Urooj threw a Molotov cocktail into a police car - an empty police car, essentially abandoned police car, police car that had been previously vandalized.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Two police officers were across the street.

SHECHTMAN: They gave chase, and Urooj and Colin were arrested.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The NYPD video apparently shows it all - Rahman in that T-shirt, the beige van slowing as it neared the police vehicle, the lighting of a toilet paper fuse, the arc of a beer bottle as it crashed onto the cruiser's dashboard. The whole episode lasted just seconds.

Rahman and Mattis now face seven felonies in federal court. The charges include the use of explosives, arson, conspiracy, the use of a destructive device, civil disobedience and the use of a destructive device in the furtherance of a crime of violence. This last charge alone, known as 924(c) of the Criminal Code, carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison. Add that to the other charges against them, and they could face life behind bars. Attorney Paul Shechtman represents Urooj Rahman, and he says his client's case has been singled out.

SHECHTMAN: Ever since it's been taken federally, it has been treated with a seriousness, a harshness unlike any I've ever seen.

TEMPLE-RASTON: NPR reviewed 47 Molotov cocktail and arson cases filed across the country that involved the destruction of police property. And this case, to which prosecutors added a third person Rahman and Mattis say they don't know, is the only instance in which that 30-year mandatory minimum charge appears. Molotov cocktail cases are usually charged as property crimes in state courts. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office declined to discuss the case or their charging decisions. Attorney General William Barr has been saying for weeks that extremists plotted the violence that erupted during the protests. And he said as much to NPR's Steve Inskeep in an interview last week.

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WILLIAM BARR: When we arrest people and charge them, at this stage anyway, we don't charge them for being a member of Antifa. We charge them for throwing a Molotov cocktail, or we charge them for possession of a gun or possession of gasoline and things to make bombs with. Those are the kinds of charges that are filed.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And while prosecutors haven't offered any evidence that Rahman and Mattis are part of an extremist group, you wouldn't know it from the way they were charged.

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DAVID KESSLER: Good afternoon, Your Honor. This is David Kessler. I'm an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The harshness in the Rahman and Mattis case went beyond the charges. Prosecutors also fought their release on bail, even though it was supported by two different judges. Fifty-six former federal prosecutors found the government's position so alarming they filed an amicus brief with the court. A panel of judges heard arguments last Tuesday, and because of the coronavirus, all of this happened over the phone. This is how it began.

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KESSLER: The district court's order releasing the defendants on bond should be reversed. And what I want to focus on here is the core issue - the danger to the community.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Government attorney David Kessler.

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KESSLER: This is not a case about a youthful indiscretion or crime of passion. It's about a calculated, dangerous crime committed by adults who risked the lives of innocent civilians and first responders.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Their crime is so serious, Kessler argued, it negates any mitigating factors that came before it. To throw that Molotov cocktail, he said...

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KESSLER: Required essentially a fundamental change in mindset for them. That's really what the core of the case is.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Shechtman told the judges the entire evening was an aberration. Here's their exchange.

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SHECHTMAN: You can't imagine what a sobering event this arrest was.

UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: Mr. Shechtman, I can't imagine how these people did what they were shown on video to have done. I find the whole case unimaginable. But having seen it happen once, I'm wondering why it is so unimaginable that it would happen again.

SHECHTMAN: I think because that night was really unique. It was young people - not just these two people - out to protest police violence who saw more of it, right? One can lose one's sense on an evening like this.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That argument appears to have convinced two of the three judges that Rahman and Mattis aren't a danger to the community. The judges said in an opinion yesterday that they agreed with the lower court, that the pair could be safely released on bail. Rahman and Mattis were allowed to go home last night. In the months ahead, they have more than just the government charges to fight. They also have to battle the suggestion that they're mixed up in what the attorney general has called a witch's brew of extremists.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York.

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