Lawyers Charged With Seven Felonies In Molotov Cocktail Attack Out On Bail

Jul 1, 2020
Originally published on July 1, 2020 6:46 pm

A surveillance camera is said to have recorded it all: a woman in a black t-shirt stepping out of a tan minivan; the lighting of a toilet-paper fuse, the arc of a beer bottle filled with fuel as it was thrown onto the dashboard of an empty police car. That act of vandalism, in the early hours of May 30, is why two Brooklyn lawyers are fighting federal explosives charges and could face as much as life in prison. They had been sitting in a New York jail until Tuesday night, after a government effort to keep them behind bars failed.

Federal prosecutors haven't accused Urooj Rahman, 31, or Colinford Mattis, 32, of harming anyone that night. But they have indirectly cast the two defendants as characters in the favored Trump administration narrative that suggests that last month's violent protests weren't just an eruption of anger from peaceful protesters, but rather the work of dedicated extremists.

In a recent memo to U.S. Attorneys and department heads, Attorney General William Barr made clear how he expected the department to respond — in the same way it did to organized crime or terrorism "by disrupting their violent activities and ultimately dismantling their capability to threaten the rule of law." Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis don't claim to be members of any group; their friends say they aren't people who espouse radical beliefs, but against this backdrop, they have been treated as if they are.

"This is not a case about youthful indiscretion or a crime of passion," a government lawyer argued at a recent hearing in the case. "It is about a calculated, dangerous crime committed by adults who risked the lives of innocent civilians and first responders, who had more Molotov cocktails ready... These were lawyers in particular who had every reason to know what they were doing was wrong and knew the consequences. Committing this crime required a fundamental change in mindset for them."

Barr has said publicly that the FBI is building cases against "a witches' brew" of extremist groups who he claims hijacked the protests. "When we arrest people and charge them, at this stage anyway, we don't charge them with being a member of Antifa," Barr told NPR's Steve Inskeep in an interview on June 25. "We charge them for throwing a Molotov cocktail, or we charge them for possession of a gun, or gasoline, or things to make bombs with. Those are the kinds of charges that are filed."


By most accounts Rahman and Mattis were idealistic attorneys hoping to change the world. Government attorneys are trying to make the case that all changed on May 29th when the pair drove to a convenience store to buy beer bottles, gasoline, and toilet paper and built homemade explosives they intended to use. In doing that, they became part of Barr's witches' brew.

"These defendants allegedly hurled Molotov cocktails at NYPD vehicles without regard for the potentially deadly consequences," the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District, Richard Donoghue, said in a statement when he announced the charges against the two attorneys. "Such criminal acts should never be confused with legitimate protest. Those who carry out attacks on NYPD officers or vehicles are criminals, and they will be treated as such."

The police say it is an open-and-shut case — a camera outside the 88th Precinct caught the entire episode; and, if that's true, it is compelling evidence against Rahman and Mattis. What it doesn't explain, though, is why their case has been treated so differently — so much more harshly — than other Molotov cocktail protester cases around the country.

Mandatory Minimum Sentences

Prosecutors in the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Eastern District of New York decided to charge Rahman and Mattis federally and the charges read like a domestic terrorism case: arson, conspiracy, use of destructive device, civil disorder, making or possessing a destructive device, and the use of explosives during a crime of violence. That last charge alone – something called 924(c) in the criminal code – carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison.

NPR reviewed forty-seven recent federal cases filed against other protesters who threw Molotov cocktails or started fires damaging police property nationwide, and this case was the only instance in which 924(c) appears. (Prosecutors charged another woman, Samantha Shader, alongside Mattis and Rahman. Shader threw a Molotov cocktail at a police van filled with officers in another part of Brooklyn that night. It is unclear why they were charged together.)

Most protesters arrested for throwing Molotov cocktails are charged under 844(i) – malicious damage or destruction by fire or explosive. When asked why the Rahman-Mattis case was charged differently, a spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office declined to comment. But two federal prosecutors who worked in the Eastern District and know the U.S. Attorney there well say the fact that the two were lawyers and knew better certainly played a role in the decision to level so many serious charges.

Defense Attorney Paul Shechtman, who represents Urooj Rahman, said he thinks federal prosecutors brought the case because they thought the local prosecutor in Brooklyn would be too lenient.

"Ever since it has been taken federally, it has been treated with a seriousness, a harshness unlike any I have ever seen," Shechtman said.

Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis, both lawyers, are facing federal charges for allegedly throwing a Molotov cocktail into an empty police car.
Hyder Kazmi, Salmah Y Rizvi

Before all this happened, Rahman and Mattis were kids from immigrant families who were making good. Rahman, born to a Pakistani working-class family, grew up in Brooklyn and had gone to Fordham Law School. She had worked as a human rights lawyer overseas and was working for Bronx Legal Services helping tenants in Housing Court.

"She's not a radical," her friend Salmah Rizvi said. "She believes in our system. She's not an anarchist or somebody on the fringe who is disconnected. No, she is quite the opposite."

Mattis grew up in East New York, the son of Jamaican immigrants. With the help of a program called Prep for Prep, which places high-achieving minority students in private high schools, he attended St. Andrew's, a boarding school in Delaware. He went on to graduate from Princeton University and NYU School of Law.

Until a few months ago, he was an associate at Pryor Cashman, a mid-level law firm in Manhattan. The company confirmed he had recently been laid off in COVID-19-related cutbacks.

"His mother had been fostering three children and when she died last year, Mattis stepped in. They're all under the age of 11," said Carolyn Chica, a mentor and advisor for Prep for Prep with Mattis. "And he's a great dad."

So Rahman was a public interest lawyer. Mattis was working at a corporate firm trying to raise three kids. Chica said no one would have imagined it would all come to this. "It's just surreal," she said.

Police officers spray protesters outside Brooklyn's Barclays Center on May 29, 2020.
Kevin Mazur / Getty Images

The scene outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on May 29th was raucous and chaotic. Thousands of chanting protesters filled the plaza in front of the arena; police in riot gear drew up next to them. Demonstrators threw water bottles and bricks at the cops on the line and when the police moved in to arrest them it was a clash that included swinging batons and pepper spray. Brooklyn Assemblywoman Diana Richardson was in the crowd and expressed anger at the police response. "The NYPD is being excessively aggressive with this crowd and it is inappropriate," she told a reporter there. "I am an elected official and they just pepper-sprayed me."

Urooj Rahman was there too. A local journalist interviewed her just outside the Barclays Center shortly after the police began their arrests. She wore a keffiyeh that she kept adjusting to cover her face. "I think this protest is a long time coming. I think the mayor should have held the police department back, like the mayor in Minneapolis did," she began. "This s*** won't ever stop unless we f***ing take it all down and that's why the anger is being expressed in this way." By then, protesters had started torching police cars, putting up barricades and mixing it up with authorities.

By night's end, hundreds of protesters were arrested and some 400 NYPD officers were injured, some seriously. A handful of the cops are facing disciplinary action for their behavior. One waved a gun at crowds gathered in Greenwich Village, another pushed a protester to the pavement causing a concussion.

The short excerpt from Rahman's interview was taken in the midst of all that. It first aired on a YouTube channel from a news outlet called LoudLabs, and eventually ricocheted around the Internet after the New York Daily News posted it on its website alongside with a mugshot of Rahman wearing a black t-shirt that read "The Struggle Continues."

It went viral because not long after that interview, Rahman climbed into a van with Mattis, drove to the nearby neighborhood of Fort Greene and, police say, threw that Molotov cocktail into an abandoned, vandalized police car and tried to get away.

No one was around, according to defense attorney Shechtman, except for two police officers across the street. "They gave chase and Urooj and Colin were arrested," he said.

Firefighters spray water on a burning police car after protesters rallied at the Barclays Center on May 29 in the Brooklyn borough of New York.
Frank Franklin II / AP

NPR called more than two dozen federal law enforcement officials across the country to discuss their investigations into the recent violence. Without discussing individual cases in detail, they said that the Justice Department was making protester cases a priority and in the absence of finding cases linked to extremists groups, they've been told to pursue any protester cases that they do have aggressively — like the one in Brooklyn.

Alleged crimes like arson or vandalism are usually considered local crimes, charged and tried in local courts. But Rahman and Mattis are facing charges in federal court. To make that possible, prosecutors have to show a federal interest. It has to affect, for example, interstate commerce in some way. The way prosecutors in the Eastern District have done that in this case is by using the Commerce Clause.

"The theory in this case is because the New York Police Department receives federal funding, that's a federal interest," said Rachel Barkow, vice dean at NYU School of Law. Mattis was in her criminal law class in 2014, though Barkow says she doesn't remember him and had to look him up in records to be sure..

"They are also arguing that the police car itself travels in the country, so that's the other hook," she said. "I believe it would pass constitutional muster. But if we're asking, as a matter of discretion, is this the kind of thing that should be a federal crime? You know, no. This could have easily been handled by local prosecutors and it's a bit odd that it's been charged federally."

Federal Prosecutors Appeal Bail

The aggressiveness of prosecutors in the Rahman-Mattis case goes beyond just the charges. The government is also fighting their pre-trial release on bail.

Most defendants who have no criminal history and can show strong ties to the community can generally work out a bail package with a judge. And initially, a Magistrate judge said both Rahman and Mattis could be released to home confinement, if they agreed to be electronically monitored and posted a $250,000 bond. Rahman and Mattis were released and were home for five days before they were rearrested.

The prosecution had appealed their bail package. A District judge reviewed the case a second time and also agreed the pair weren't a danger to the community and could be released. Prosecutors appealed again, this time to a three-judge panel in the U.S. District Court of Appeals. The crime was so serious, they argued, no bail package could be stringent enough. However Rahman and Mattis might have conducted themselves before May 29th didn't matter, they said, because they had all the hallmarks of secure and stable life and yet still committed this crime.

Fifty-six former federal prosecutors were so alarmed by the government's argument, they filed a friend of the court brief. Brian Jacobs, a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York was one of them.

"Under the Bail Reform Act it is entirely appropriate for district judges and magistrate judges to consider a defendant's history and characteristics in weighing whether there's a bail package that could assure the safety of the community," Jacobs said. "The position the government takes [in this case] is that if you have an alleged offense that reaches a certain level of seriousness, when you have a certain quantum of proof on the government's side, the defendant's history and characteristics no longer matter."

A three judge panel heard the appeal last week and the government argued that the two judges who granted bail didn't properly weigh the presumption that this kind of crime posed a danger of repeat behavior. Shechtman, for his part, said this was all about one night in which two good people lost their way.

Two of the three judges decided Tuesday night to reaffirm the decision of the lower court and ordered that Rahman and Mattis be released on bail. The two walked out of the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn a few hours later, ending weeks of solitary confinement at the facility. They had been isolated in a bid to prevent them from catching COVID-19. It is unclear whether the government will appeal their bail again.

Both Rahman and Mattis have pleaded not guilty to all charges and are due in court again in mid-July.

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Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis were kids from immigrant families who made good, both graduates of prestigious law schools. She represented tenants in housing court. He was an associate at a corporate firm in Manhattan. Now they face life in prison in one of the government's highest-profile cases against protesters. Dina Temple-Raston of NPR's Investigations Team reports.






DINA TEMPLE-RASTON, BYLINE: The night of May 29 in Brooklyn was chaotic.








TEMPLE-RASTON: As curfew drew near, police in riot gear began to make arrests, and protesters started throwing water bottles and bricks.



UNIDENTIFIED POLICE OFFICER: This assembly is unlawful. If you do not disburse, you will be subject to arrest.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The NYPD tried to break up the crowd with pepper spray and swinging batons.


DIANA RICHARDSON: The NYPD is being excessively aggressive with this crowd here, and it is inappropriate. I'm Assemblywoman Diana Richardson. I'm an elected official, and they just pepper sprayed me for no reason.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Urooj Rahman was there, too. A local journalist stopped her for an interview. And her face was covered with a scarf, and she was wearing a black T-shirt that read, the struggle continues.


UROOJ RAHMAN: This protest is a long time coming. I think that the mayor should have pulled their - his police department back the way that the mayor in Minneapolis did.

TEMPLE-RASTON: But the part of the interview that ricocheted around the Internet was this.


RAHMAN: This s*** won't ever stop unless we [expletive] take it all down. And that's why the anger is being expressed tonight in this way.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Prosecutors say an NYPD surveillance camera captured images of Rahman a short time later. She was riding in the passenger seat of a van. Her friend Colinford Mattis was driving. What allegedly happened next, defense attorney Paul Shechtman says, is the basis for the charges against them.

PAUL SHECHTMAN: It's alleged that Urooj threw a Molotov cocktail into a police car - an empty police car, essentially abandoned police car, police car that had been previously vandalized.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Two police officers were across the street.

SHECHTMAN: They gave chase, and Urooj and Colin were arrested.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The NYPD video apparently shows it all - Rahman in that T-shirt, the beige van slowing as it neared the police vehicle, the lighting of a toilet paper fuse, the arc of a beer bottle as it crashed onto the cruiser's dashboard. The whole episode lasted just seconds.

Rahman and Mattis now face seven felonies in federal court. The charges include the use of explosives, arson, conspiracy, the use of a destructive device, civil disobedience and the use of a destructive device in the furtherance of a crime of violence. This last charge alone, known as 924(c) of the Criminal Code, carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison. Add that to the other charges against them, and they could face life behind bars. Attorney Paul Shechtman represents Urooj Rahman, and he says his client's case has been singled out.

SHECHTMAN: Ever since it's been taken federally, it has been treated with a seriousness, a harshness unlike any I've ever seen.

TEMPLE-RASTON: NPR reviewed 47 Molotov cocktail and arson cases filed across the country that involved the destruction of police property. And this case, to which prosecutors added a third person Rahman and Mattis say they don't know, is the only instance in which that 30-year mandatory minimum charge appears. Molotov cocktail cases are usually charged as property crimes in state courts. A spokesman for the U.S. attorney's office declined to discuss the case or their charging decisions. Attorney General William Barr has been saying for weeks that extremists plotted the violence that erupted during the protests. And he said as much to NPR's Steve Inskeep in an interview last week.


WILLIAM BARR: When we arrest people and charge them, at this stage anyway, we don't charge them for being a member of Antifa. We charge them for throwing a Molotov cocktail, or we charge them for possession of a gun or possession of gasoline and things to make bombs with. Those are the kinds of charges that are filed.

TEMPLE-RASTON: And while prosecutors haven't offered any evidence that Rahman and Mattis are part of an extremist group, you wouldn't know it from the way they were charged.


DAVID KESSLER: Good afternoon, Your Honor. This is David Kessler. I'm an assistant U.S. attorney in the Eastern District of New York.

TEMPLE-RASTON: The harshness in the Rahman and Mattis case went beyond the charges. Prosecutors also fought their release on bail, even though it was supported by two different judges. Fifty-six former federal prosecutors found the government's position so alarming they filed an amicus brief with the court. A panel of judges heard arguments last Tuesday, and because of the coronavirus, all of this happened over the phone. This is how it began.


KESSLER: The district court's order releasing the defendants on bond should be reversed. And what I want to focus on here is the core issue - the danger to the community.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Government attorney David Kessler.


KESSLER: This is not a case about a youthful indiscretion or crime of passion. It's about a calculated, dangerous crime committed by adults who risked the lives of innocent civilians and first responders.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Their crime is so serious, Kessler argued, it negates any mitigating factors that came before it. To throw that Molotov cocktail, he said...


KESSLER: Required essentially a fundamental change in mindset for them. That's really what the core of the case is.

TEMPLE-RASTON: Shechtman told the judges the entire evening was an aberration. Here's their exchange.


SHECHTMAN: You can't imagine what a sobering event this arrest was.

UNIDENTIFIED JUDGE: Mr. Shechtman, I can't imagine how these people did what they were shown on video to have done. I find the whole case unimaginable. But having seen it happen once, I'm wondering why it is so unimaginable that it would happen again.

SHECHTMAN: I think because that night was really unique. It was young people - not just these two people - out to protest police violence who saw more of it, right? One can lose one's sense on an evening like this.

TEMPLE-RASTON: That argument appears to have convinced two of the three judges that Rahman and Mattis aren't a danger to the community. The judges said in an opinion yesterday that they agreed with the lower court, that the pair could be safely released on bail. Rahman and Mattis were allowed to go home last night. In the months ahead, they have more than just the government charges to fight. They also have to battle the suggestion that they're mixed up in what the attorney general has called a witch's brew of extremists.

Dina Temple-Raston, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.