Protesters’ indictments on gang-related charges criticized by attorneys, advocates
Gang-related charges brought by a Maricopa County prosecutor against 15 people protesting police violence drew condemnation from attorneys and community advocates, who said the charges were far too harsh and could intimidate people from exercising their free-speech rights.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office suggested the charges to a grand jury, which returned the indictment last week.
The protesters worked together so they couldn’t get arrested and turned violent when officers apprehended them at the Oct. 17 demonstration in downtown Phoenix, according to police testimony against one of the defendants.
This case has raised the level of prosecution of demonstrators who have protested police violence and systemic racism in Phoenix since George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. Other protesters have been arrested on suspicion of assault on police, obstructing streets and rioting. But this is the first time a prosecutor has filed gang-related charges in connection with this year’s protests.
That the 15 people are being charged with gang activity “is another example and escalation” of silencing protesters, said Christina Carter, a Phoenix attorney who has represented other protesters in demonstrations over the summer
“The fact that now they can see the potential of facing street gang charges for participating in lawful First Amendment protests it’s going to chill free speech.“
In a statement to The Republic, Maricopa County Attorney Allister Adel said, “This office fully supports everyone’s right to peacefully assemble and protest as guaranteed by our Constitution. Doing so is a hallmark of a healthy democracy. However, committing acts of lawlessness and violence cannot be tolerated.
“Thousands of people in this community have appropriately and lawfully exercised their rights to protest over the last several months. A small few, however, have seen these events as an opportunity to attack law enforcement officers and endanger the safety of others lawfully expressing their views.”
Dressing in black, carrying umbrellas, working together
The criminal street gang statute says: “A person commits assisting a criminal street gang by committing any felony offense, whether completed or preparatory for the benefit of, at the direction of or in association with any criminal street gang.”
If any of the defendants are found guilty of the class three felony of assisting a gang, at least five years in prison will be added to any sentencing for other charges.
The demonstrators also were indicted on other charges, including rioting, obstructing a thoroughfare, unlawful assembly, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and resisting arrest.
The Oct. 17 protest near Van Buren Street and 10th Avenue involved a small group of protesters who began marching in the road and “soon began throwing incendiary devices that emitted smoke at officers,” according to a report at the time from police spokesperson Sgt. Ann Justus.
During an evidentiary hearing Friday against one of the defendants, Phoenix police Sgt. Douglas McBride said in Maricopa County Superior Court that the group of protesters worked together to avoid arrest and turned violent when officers apprehended them.
He also said the group dressed in all black, carried umbrellas and used the common phrases “All Cops Are Bastards” and “ACAB.”
Protesters have used umbrellas to protect themselves from the Arizona sun, block their identities if they do not want to be seen and, in some places, as shields to protect their faces from tear gas.
“These particular groups they try to make it as difficult as possible for us to arrest them,” McBride testified. “They try every tactic they can to protect each other from the police and inflict as much pain as they can on us while we’re trying to effect an arrest.”
Besides the 15 people being charged as adults, three minors were taken into custody. It was not immediately known what charges were brought against the minors in Maricopa County Juvenile Court.
‘Chilling effect’ on protests; ‘selective and vindictive,’ attorneys say
Kenneth Countryman who is representing Suvarna Ratnam, one of the 15 demonstrators, said he was shocked to find out about the gang-related charge.
It is an intimidation tactic to deter protesters, he said.
Countryman said the gang-related charge is very serious and could have a “chilling effect” on protesters who now may think twice about marching in the streets to advocate for racial justice.
“They’re protesting for civil rights; they aren’t selling drugs around the neighborhood,” Countryman said.
Community groups had advocated for the release of Ratnam, who originally was held in Maricopa County’s Estrella Jail after arrest. Ratnam was released on a $5,000 bond after two weeks in custody. Ratnam was arrested on suspicion of aggravated assault on an officer, riot, unlawful assembly, hindering prosecution and obstructing a road.
Countryman said Ratnam was only protesting law enforcement’s actions against people of color and was “very committed to social justice reform.”
Countryman said actions like holding defendants “non-bondable” and filing street gang charges are designed to scare people from protesting.
“It is working. There are a lot of people who don’t want to go out and protest because they know people who are arrested,” he said.
Dave Erlichman, an attorney representing defendant Amy Kaper, filed a court document on Monday saying his defense of his client will be that the case is selective and vindictive, and unconstitutional use of the gang-assistance statute.
Ryan Tait, an attorney representing defendant Riley Behrens, said he plans to question if the state statute was meant to target demonstrators.
Tait, who ran for Maricopa County attorney as a Democrat but dropped out of the race before the primary, said he is concerned about the charge because it’s “a very heavy sanction.”
Louis Fidel, president-elect of the Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice, said, “We find it deeply troubling anytime when the criminal justice system has the potential for stifling free speech and freedom of assembly. These prosecutions are concerning.”
Adel, who is running for election against challenger Julie Gunnigle, has received numerous endorsements from police unions. She has stated that she does not take endorsements or think about politics when looking into charging decisions.
Deputy county attorney in case draws scrutiny
April Sponsel, the deputy county attorney prosecuting the case, is the wife of Arizona Department of Public Safety Trooper Alfonso Galindo, a 13-year DPS veteran who was recently shot at by a 17-year-old boy.
Many local protests have focused on Dion Johnson, a Black man shot by a DPS trooper on Memorial Day, the same day Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Their deaths led to weeks of protests in the Phoenix area demanding equal treatment for people of color.
Adel announced in September that the trooper would not be prosecuted.
A motion was filed on Monday in Maricopa County Superior Court asking the judge to disqualify Sponsel from prosecuting the case.
“People are specifically being targeted for our political views. I think as well that this is a personal vendetta,” said Viri Hernandez, executive director for Poder in Action, an advocacy group. “This is a personal task from this prosecutor who is married to the police to now target and prosecute in a way that we’ve never seen before.”
Carter said “it is concerning” that a prosecutor married to an officer involved in a shooting is on the case.
“It definitely gives one pause,” she said.
In September, Galindo was shot at by a 17-year-old boy near 37th Avenue and McDowell Road.
A driver in a silver Infiniti with custom wheels and temporary plates pulled up alongside the trooper’s vehicle and honked the horn, at which point the passenger got out of the Infiniti and shot an AK47 assault pistol at the trooper, DPS Director Heston Silbert said at news conference at the time.
The driver fled, leaving the shooter behind, Silbert said. Galindo and another trooper returned fire.
The case normally would have been reviewed by the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to determine if the shooting was justified. Because of the office’s ethics policy, prosecutors are prohibited from having a personal relationship with a victim or witness on a case, Adel said. The case is being reviewed instead by the Pinal County Attorney’s Office.
Public court records show that Galindo and Sponsel were married in 2017 in Pinal County.
In July 2018, the Mesa Police Department awarded Sponsel with the Citizen Meritorious Service Award “for her tireless efforts in securing significant convictions for known gang members in a lengthy high-profile prosecution,” according to a 2018 Maricopa County Attorney’s Office newsletter.
“This award is an example of what can be achieved when law enforcement and prosecutors work together to protect a community,” Sponsel was quoted as saying in the newsletter. “While this case required a great deal of legal time and effort it is truly the outstanding work of the detectives and officers at the Mesa Police Department that should be most honored.”
Lola N’sangou, executive director of the Phoenix advocacy group Mass Liberation Arizona, said that Sponsel’s marriage to a DPS officer and Adel allowing Sponsel to prosecute the case was no surprise.
“The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office has been motivated to suppress the movement of defunding the police and getting justice for families of people shot by police,” N’sangou said. “It’s very clear to us, you have a prosecutor motivated by the interests of DPS to prosecute people protesting the DPS shooting of Dion Johnson.”
Jocquese Blackwell, a lawyer who previously represented Johnson’s family, said, “You are going to prosecute free speech and give them gang charges? That’s crazy.”
Blackwell said Sponsel needs to be taken off the case because some of the protesters have demonstrated against the killing of Johnson. That she’s married to another DPS trooper should be considered a conflict of interest, he said.
“She can’t represent the state without any bias, particularly when her husband was part of a (shooting),” he said. “I don’t see how that’s not a conflict.”