Two New York City lawyers pled guilty in a Brooklyn federal court Wednesday morning to one charge relating to the firebombing of a police vehicle during the George Floyd riots.
Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman each pled guilty to one count of possessing or making a destructive device, a charge carrying as much as 10 years in prison under a terrorism sentencing enhancement. U.S. District Judge Brian Cogan will determine the length of the prison term, which could run much shorter than 10 years, at a sentencing proceeding in February 2022.
Liberal legal elites flocked to the defense of Mattis and Rahman following their arrest in May 2020. Those advocates broadly accused Trump appointees at the Justice Department of railroading the defendants to underscore their tough on crime agenda in the midst of nationwide unrest following Floyd’s death. And they’ve urged the department’s Biden-appointed successors to chart a friendlier course.
The Washington Free Beacon reported in 2020 that an intelligence official in the Obama administration, Salmah Rizvi, guaranteed Rahman’s bail. Rachel Barkow, a former member of the U.S. Sentencing Commission and a major figure in criminal justice reform circles, urged the new Biden-appointed U.S. attorney in Brooklyn to stop pursuing the terror enhancement in a New York Daily News piece. And media outlets including NPR and BuzzFeed News published sympathetic profiles of the defendants.
Mattis and Rahman made short statements Wednesday morning confessing and expressing regret for their actions. Following the allocution, prosecutors read direct messages the pair traded, meaning to underscore that their acts were planned. The defense and sympathetic observers have cast Mattis and Rahman as righteous crusaders who made a terrible mistake in the heat of the moment. Cogan rebuked the prosecution, saying their intervention was not relevant to Wednesday’s proceeding.
The government obtained indictments on six other charges which together carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 45 years. Those charges include arson conspiracy and use of a destructive device "during and in relation to a crime of violence." The latter indictment was particularly controversial because that provision carries a 30-year mandatory minimum sentence.
Barkow and others say destruction of a police vehicle is a crime typically handled by local authorities, not the Department of Justice. They also faulted the government for stacking harsh charges against two first-time offenders.
Conviction will carry serious consequences for defendants’ legal careers. New York state automatically disbars any attorney convicted of a felony charge. Though Mattis and Rahman could apply to practice in other states, they will have a harder time obtaining a license because of a prior disbarment.
Mattis is a graduate of Princeton University and New York University School of Law, while Rahman obtained her undergraduate and law degrees from Fordham University. Mattis was in private practice at a mid-sized corporate law firm prior to his arrest, and Rahman was a legal aid lawyer representing indigent clients.
Prosecutors argued the fact that the defendants are lawyers made their crime all the more egregious.
"These defendants abdicated their responsibilities as attorneys," prosecutors wrote in a court filing that advocated for pre-trial detention. "Instead of using their privileged positions to change society lawfully, they used a Molotov cocktail and sought to incite others to adopt their violent ways. They hid under the cloak of peaceful protests and attacked the institutions and individuals who keep them safe and protect their constitutional rights."
Mattis and Rahman are currently subject to house arrest and electronic monitoring, though they’ve both been granted reprieves for special events. For example, they were each permitted to attend the wedding of close friends on the weekend of Oct. 2, obtaining permission to stay out as late as 1:00 a.m.
The evidence against both defendants is significant. Surveillance footage captured Rahman firebombing the police vehicle and retreating to Mattis’s car for a getaway. Police officers were also on hand and witnessed the incident. They were arrested together that same evening.
Another witness told authorities that Rahman tried to distribute Molotov cocktails to others "so that those individuals could likewise use the incendiary devices in furtherance of more destruction and violence."
The case is U.S. v. Mattis et al. in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.