US attorney says free speech no defense in arson case


  • Melquan Barnett was charged on federal charges of setting fire to Cafe Ember + Forge during a riot in downtown Erie on May 30
  • Barnett, 28th, claims the federal prosecutor’s office is politically motivated
  • In a newly filed response, the US Attorney General says the charges are warranted and calls Barnett’s allegations “frivolous.”

The legal divide has widened in the federal arson case that emerged from the riot in downtown Erie on the night of May 30.

The US prosecutor’s office has sharply criticized the allegations of the defendant Melquan Barnett, 28, who claims he was the victim of “selective prosecution” for setting fire to the Ember + Forge cafe during the riots.

The government said that Barnett, who is black, is making “frivolous” claims that he was implicated in free speech and that his race was wrong in the decision to see him in the US District Court in Erie rather than the Erie County Court negotiate where there is potential Penalties would be less severe.

Broken glass lays on the sidewalk outside the Ember + Forge cafe on the 400 block of State Street in downtown Erie on May 31, the day after a fire was started in the store during the downtown riot.

“In contrast to peaceful protests, violent riots are not a First Amendment activity,” said the US prosecutor in a file filed with the US District Court in Erie on Thursday.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said it and the Department of Justice have the right to prosecute Barnett, who has so far not challenged any evidence on his records that he started the fire. Investigators used video to identify him.

“Without ever denying that there was a probable reason for indicting him” under federal law, “Barnett essentially characterizes the specific individuals who chose to prosecute him at the federal level, as well as the DOJ itself as partisan racists,” the newspaper reads File.

“But Barnett has no evidence – let alone plain evidence – that either his race or his unspecified ‘First Amendment activities’ had anything to do with that office’s decision to indict him in federal court.”

“Protection of the Darkness”

A US assistant attorney in Pittsburgh, Donavan Cocas, submitted the 25-page document in response to February’s motion for the dismissal of Barnett’s attorney, Charles Sunwabe. Erie District Judge Susan Paradise Baxter will use the records to decide whether to end or continue the federal prosecution.

Much of Barnett’s petition for dismissal centered on his argument that he was exercising his First Amendment rights while protesting downtown on May 30 against the death of George Floyd, the Minneapolis black who died after the Police held him there and held him on the ground on May 25th.

Application for dismissal:Melquan Barnett, who is charged with federal arson on the Erie riot, alleges politics and discrimination

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in its new file broadened the position it has taken since the trial began – that Barnett was charged not in connection with a three-hour peaceful protest in downtown Erie on May 30, but in connection with the riots broke out afterwards. The rioters stormed outside the Erie Police Station, broke a window and set off fireworks before dispersing downtown as police in riot gear tried to disperse them with tear gas.

“When Barnett arrived around 9 p.m., the protest was over,” said the US Attorney’s office in their file. “Like others who would commit crimes and bump into the police, he waited for the cover of darkness to join the crowd of 100 to 200 people who had gathered outside the police station.”

The riots lasted about three hours. Members of the crowd broke windows and tore parking meters out of the ground and tried to injure police officers with bricks, frozen water bottles, large fireworks and at least one Molotov cocktail, police said. According to police, 16 shops in the city center were destroyed, three buildings were set on fire and one person was shot.

Three hours of chaos:How Erie turned into a tinderbox

Barnett was charged in June with a federal crime of maliciously destroying property by fire. The conviction provides for a mandatory minimum sentence of five years in federal prison and a maximum of 20 years.

Barnett has pleaded not guilty. He is under house arrest from prison while awaiting prosecution.

The fire at Ember + Forge was quickly put out and the café reopened days after the riots. The store’s owner, Hannah Kirby, said she would like Barnett’s charges dismissed and the case brought to Erie County Court.

Federal case:Feds attack Erie Mann in Ember + Forge fire during the riot

The cafe is below 10 apartments, and the building’s owner, Erie Architect Jeff Kidder, told the Erie Times-News after the riot that he was upset that someone would start a fire in a store near the apartments. He said nine of the apartments were occupied.

Ember + Forge:Damaged Erie Shop Owner: Federal Accusation Too Harsh

Aftermath:Erie Times-News reports reactions from business owners and others

Barnett was one of about two dozen people charged with the riot. All of the defendants were prosecuted in Erie County Court, with the exception of two defendants who were indicted in federal court.

The other defendant in federal court is Tyvarh Nicholson, 29, who was charged in September of obstructing law enforcement during a civil malfunction and possession of an unregistered firearm or destructive device during the May 30 malfunction.

Nicholson pleaded not guilty and is awaiting prosecution in prison after missing a hearing, according to court records. Nicholson, who is also Black, has so far made no argument for selective law enforcement or free speech in his case.

Second federal case:Erie Mann charged in downtown riot

Erie Police initially charged Barnett with arson, seen on video pouring a flammable substance through the broken window of Ember + Forge and setting it on fire after the video showed a woman breaking out the window .

The US Attorney’s Office then took over the case and arranged for the FBI to indict Barnett, who was then indicted in federal court. The federal arson was based in part on the fact that Ember + Forge is making international trade by using Facebook and Instagram, selling gift cards over the internet, and buying coffee mugs from New York.

With the aim of sending a “clear message”

Barnett argues that his charges had more to do with politics than the circumstances of his case. He claims the charges against him arose out of a campaign waged nationwide against Black Lives Matter protesters by then-President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr. The result, according to Barnett’s motion, was “political persecution” in connection with the protests.

In response to Barnett’s petition for dismissal, the US Attorney General stated that the charges against Barnett were appropriate to the circumstances of the individual case. Cocas, the US assistant attorney, highlighted Barnett’s criminal record, saying in response that Barnett “had been involved in law enforcement, including a police misidentification conviction, ten years earlier as an adult.

Deterrence, said Cocas, is one reason the US prosecution is pursuing the case.

“Barnett has a criminal history,” the reply said. “The sentence Barnett will receive if convicted should send the clear message that those who disrupt the legitimate First Amendment activity of peaceful protesters with violent, destructive behavior will be punished accordingly.”

Cocas also said in response, “In the end, Barnett was deliberately embroiled in destructive, life-threatening behavior that spattered him on all network and internet news sites. He deliberately added himself to and contributed to the chaos that caused billions of people. ” Dollars in damages and prompted world leaders to express a range of sentiments, from alarm to malicious glee.

“In light of all of this, Barnett cannot seriously deny that the prosecution in this court is in the federal interest in deterring potential rioters from mistaking violence and destruction for legitimate language: especially in times of civil unrest that is so widespread and unrelenting, that the international community stops to draw attention to itself. “

Contact Ed Palattella at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @ETNpalattella.