House Republicans Press Biden DOJ on Soft Sentence for Floyd Arsonist

Prosecutors urged leniency because arsonist was frustrated with the criminal justice system

Montez Terriel Lee
February 10, 2022

House Republicans are pressing the Justice Department to explain why it advocated a reduced sentence for an arsonist who killed a father of five during the 2020 George Floyd riots.

Rep. Chip Roy (R., Texas) sent a letter to the department Wednesday demanding answers about a memo in which Minnesota's federal prosecutors pushed a judge to halve the recommended sentence for the arsonist, 26-year-old Montez Terriel Lee. Federal sentencing guidelines suggested Lee serve 20 years in prison, but prosecutors said 12 would suffice because Lee's actions reflect his legitimate frustration with the criminal justice system.

"It would appear that Mr. Lee is enjoying the benefits of kid-gloved, preferential treatment in this case because he committed violence in furtherance of the preferred political views of your office and the current administration," Roy wrote in a letter first obtained by the Washington Free Beacon. It is addressed to W. Anders Folk, who served as Minnesota's top federal prosecutor until November, when he was promoted to a post in Washington, D.C.

The episode highlights Biden administration ties to the unrest in Minnesota during the 2020 presidential campaign. More than a dozen Biden campaign staffers contributed to a Minneapolis bail fund that promised to pay bail fees for demonstrators, a group Vice President Kamala Harris promoted on social media.

Three separate videos captured Lee before and immediately after he set fire to the Max It Pawn Shop in Minneapolis on May 28, according to a government affidavit. The first video shows him pouring liquid accelerant around the shop, which is in a state of complete disarray following apparent looting.

In a second video, Lee is seen standing outside the burning shop while saying "Fuck this place. We're gonna burn this bitch down." A third video shows Lee and others discussing restaurants they might "hit" next. The videos were obtained from an anonymous informant.

Apparently unbeknownst to Lee, Oscar Stewart was still inside the shop when he set off the inferno. Authorities recovered Stewart's body from the rubble of the pawn shop almost two months later on July 20. Stewart's mother reported him missing on June 5. Lee pleaded guilty to one count of arson but refused to accept responsibility for Stewart's death. The arsonist claims he checked the building for occupants before setting it ablaze and never meant to kill anyone, according to court filings. Stewart had five children.

The government's sentencing memo expresses a great deal of sympathy with the rioters, even as it acknowledges their behavior was "reckless and dangerous." The memo opens by noting that violent and destructive riots in Minneapolis and St. Paul were preceded by "mostly peaceful protests." And the memo distinguishes between rioters who exploited the chaos to commit random violence and good faith demonstrators who got carried away because they feel "angry, frustrated, and disenfranchised." Lee is one of the latter category, the memo reads.

"Mr. Lee was terribly misguided, and his actions had tragic, unthinkable consequences. But he appears to have believed that he was, in Dr. King's eloquent words, engaging in 'the language of the unheard,'" the memo reads.

"The document reads as if it were written by the defendant's counsel rather than the prosecuting attorney," Roy's letter reads.

On balance, prosecutors said a 12-year sentence adequately reflects the seriousness of the crime and is in line with other cases involving defendants whose dangerous acts resulted in an unintended death.

There are two signatories to the government's filing. One is Folk, who is now a senior counsel for the Justice Department's number two official, Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco. The other is Thomas Calhoun-Lopez, who has been a federal prosecutor in Minnesota since 2012.

Roy's letter calls for the department to identify other lawyers who assisted in drafting the memo and asks whether they consulted authorities in Washington, before recommending the reduced sentence. Roy sits on the House Judiciary Committee, which has oversight authority over the Justice Department.

U.S. District Judge Wilhelmina Wright sentenced Lee to 10 years on Jan. 19, with three years of supervised release. Wright has been mentioned as a candidate to succeed Justice Stephen Breyer.