Activists and lawyers used social media to celebrate briefly after Maricopa prosecutors dismissed a gang-related case following a protest in October.
The dismissal was announced by prosecutors late Friday evening after months of scrutiny and public outcry. Fifteen protesters had been charged with gang and other charges by a grand jury after 18 people, including three teenagers, were arrested in a protest against police brutality in downtown Phoenix in October.
Following the arrests, Phoenix police said demonstrators marched in the streets, laid barricades, resisted arrest and threw smoke bombs at officials during the October 17 protest. These 15 protesters were charged, among other things, with conspiracy to cause aggravated assault, serious civil unrest, unlawful gathering and supporting a street criminal gang. If any of the third-class defendants had been found guilty of assisting a gang, at least five years in prison would have been added to their conviction on other charges.
After the District Attorney’s office recommended the gang charges, the grand jury returned with a charge. The charges against the gang increased the prosecution of protesters in Phoenix as protests broke out across the country in Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd in 2020.
It was also the first time a prosecutor brought gang indictments in connection with the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests in Phoenix.
While the dismissal exonerated the protesters charged in the case, many said it was only the first step in dropping all charges in protest-related cases in Maricopa County. Other activists and protesters, such as Bruce Franks Jr., a former Missouri State representative, continue to face charges over other 2020 protests.
In a statement, prosecutors said they were continuing to evaluate incoming evidence in the case.
“The office is reassessing the evidence that has been and is being presented for review,” the statement said. “The MCAO remains committed to holding those who committed crimes in this case accountable.”
Activists say all protest fees should be dropped for 2020
Marysa Leyva, 25, was one of the protesters arrested on October 17th. At first she said she was glad to know of the release, but the excitement has subsided as other protesters in Maricopa County are still bringing charges.
“I feel very validated, but at the same time it’s like this, OK, so we’ve known this all along, you admit you’re wrong here. Now what? I want to see some accountability,” Leyva said.
Leyva said she and other protesters have faced challenges in their personal lives since the arrests and are still waiting for police to return their personal belongings such as phones and credit cards.
Now, Leyva said she and other protesters along with activist groups in Phoenix will continue to stand up for protesters and demand that all charges in their cases be dropped.
“Now everyone can see how badly this has been mistreated by the boss (Jeri Williams), the Phoenix police and the Maricopa County Prosecutor’s Office,” Leyva said.
Riley Behrens, 23, said he was also excited about the dismissed case, but knows that the October 17th event isn’t the only protest that has led to arrests and charges.
“There are other cases that we can focus on and try to drop them too,” said Behrens. “If this is the behavior you showed for our arrest, then no doubt there are other videos, other comments, and similar scenarios for the other arrests.”
Activists, supporters say news report, public pressure sparked dismissal
The news of the dismissal came after months of criticism from activists and advocates who said the charge was too harsh and could prevent people from exercising their rights in the future.
The dismissal of the case “was the best the Maricopa County attorney could do,” said Jocquese Blackwell, an attorney listed on court documents as Leyva’s agent.
“This has nothing to do with a gang-related crime, nothing at all. You basically made it to the grand jury,” said Blackwell, who also represented the family of Dion Johnson, who is from an Arizona Department of Fatal Public security soldier was shot dead in May.
HB2485: Bill seeking tougher penalties for crimes committed during protests dies
Last week, public outcry and support from Black Lives Matter protesters in Phoenix also attracted national attention after ABC15 published an investigation into the gang charges, other protest cases in Phoenix, and a challenge coin that police were using reminds violence against demonstrators.
“The only reason they’re doing something about it now is for the public to notice,” Leyva said.
Kenneth Countryman, a lawyer representing Suvarna Ratnam, said Ratnam was “utterly innocent,” reiterating that public outcry had led prosecutors to reassess the charges.
“The charge was unjustified,” said Countryman. “This was a political persecution.”
Countryman said the law firm should “look closely” at the protest cases and determine that the protesters are expressing their First Amendment rights and are not using violence.
Countryman, while pleased that the case was dismissed, is hoping it won’t be brought back.
The civil rights group demands that cases with prejudice be dismissed
In an online statement, civil rights group Mass Liberation Arizona said the law firm dismissing the cases was “correct” but the motion was “useless” unless the charges were dismissed on bias, which means the case cannot be reopened.
“Police and prosecutors have worked together to destroy the lives of people who demanded racial justice by lying and manipulating judges, juries and the public,” the group said in a statement.
The Arizona mass liberation also called for charges to be dropped on any remaining protest cases, oath-defied officials to be held accountable and Brady-Listed, and all prosecutors involved in the cases to be dismissed.
“There is no excuse for what they did. It is nothing short of wrongdoing,” the organization said.
You can reach the reporter at [email protected] or on Twitter at @ Audreyj101.