• Seven protesters could be sentenced to life-in-prison for felony rioting and criminal mischief charges carrying "gang enchancement" in Salt Lake City
  • The district attorney said he is an active supporter of Black Lives Matter, but the group crossed the line protecting their free speech
  • Lawyers for the protesters called the charges and potential sentence excessive and raised conflict of interest questions because of the office vandalized

Multiple Black Lives Matter protesters in Utah could be facing life in prison for allegedly splashing red paint on the Salt Lake City District Attorney’s Office and smashing its windows.

The protesters' lawyers and Salt Lake City officials called the charges excessive and have also raised concerns about a possible conflict of interest.

Seven protesters – identified as Sofia Alcalá, Marvin Oliveros, Madalena McNeil, Madison Alleman, Viviane Turman, Michelle Mower, Hurija Mustafic and Emanuel Hill – were charged with felony rioting and criminal mischief, which carries "gang enhancement" charge.

Mustafic was also charged with two counts of misdemeanor assault. Because of the gang enhancement charge, the seven could face a maximum sentence of life-in-prison if convicted.

“This is so far beyond just the enforcement of the law, it feels retaliatory,” McNeil told the Associated Press. “I just feel so much concern for what this means for the right to protest in general.”

Jesse Nix, the defense attorney for Viviane Turman, also said the case represented a conflict of interest for the prosecutor, District Attorney Sim Gill, because it was his office that was vandalized.

“I’m disappointed that they didn’t recognize the conflict and send it out to someone else to decide what to charge because right now, it feels like Sim Gill is upset at the damage to his beautiful building so he’s going to do everything he can to scare protesters,” Turman told the Salt Lake Tribune.

However, the prosecutor downplayed the possibility of anyone in the group being sent to prison.

“I don’t think anyone is going to be going to prison on this,” Gill told reporters.

He said he hadn’t charged anyone for violating the city’s curfew and he had participated in several Black Lives Matter protests. However, the group’s actions were not becoming the of protests and they needed to be held accountable for their actions.

“This is not about protest, this is about people who are engaging in criminal conduct,” Gill said. “We have to have some agreement of what constitutes protected First Amendment speech. When you cross that threshold, should you be held accountable or not?”

Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall did not share Gill’s sentiment, criticizing the charges and potential sentence on Twitter.

A man holds a picture of George Floyd during a Black Lives Matter protest in New York City
A man holds a picture of George Floyd during a Black Lives Matter protest in New York City GETTY IMAGES / Jeenah Moon