Amended charges mean Utah protesters no longer face life in prison for alleged paint crimes

When Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill hired a retired judge to take over the prosecutions of eight protesters accused of damaging the district attorney’s office building, he stressed that Dane Nolan had the independence to do what he wanted in the case.

In Nolan’s first public move, he did just that by unilaterally cutting decades from the possible sentences those protesters were facing by reducing their charges.

This means that seven of the eight defendants who were initially charged with first-degree felonies no longer face the possibility of a sentence of up to life in prison. They instead are charged with crimes that carry a potential penalty of five or 15 years.

The group is accused of either purchasing, transporting or spreading paint outside the building and on the road, or breaking windows, in a July 9 protest, after Gill’s office announced it wouldn’t be charging officers who fatally shot 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal.

This summer, as equity and nonviolence in policing came to the forefront of the national conversation and led to numerous protests nationwide, demonstrators in Utah focused on Palacios-Carbajal’s death and rallied almost daily for justice in his case.

Activist Madalena McNeil, who has been vocal about her experience being charged, said, “I am happy, because obviously I don’t want to go to prison for life, and I don’t want anyone else to, but I think we have to be clear about the fact that, clearly, the charges didn’t have to be that high in the first place.”

Public officials and the protesters’ attorneys had denounced the charges as excessive, and the cases garnered international scrutiny.

District Attorney Sim Gill had said he would turn the cases over to an outside prosecutor — because of a conflict of interest, since Gill’s office couldn’t ethically prosecute protesters for allegedly damaging his office building — and picked retired judge Dane Nolan on Aug. 12.

Nolan reduced the charges Friday, court records show. He didn’t immediately respond to The Salt Lake Tribune’s request for comment.

Four of the protesters — McNeil, Michelle Mower, Marvin Oliveros and Sofia Alcala — now face a third-degree felony charge of criminal mischief. The rioting charge they initially faced was replaced with class C misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct.

Emanuel Hill’s charges were lessened to one count of second-degree felony criminal mischief. Madison Alleman and Viviane Turman’s charged were reduced to a third-degree charge of criminal mischief.

The eighth defendant in the case, Hurija Mustafic, was initially charged with a felony count of rioting and two class A misdemeanors of assaulting a police officer. The felony count was removed.

Alcala also faced two felonies for alleged involvement with a June 27 protest, where demonstrators also painted the road outside of Gill’s office red. Nolan amended those counts to a single third-degree felony charge of criminal mischief.

Gill told The Tribune on Friday evening that his office trusts Nolan’s judgement.

“He’s independent and we support him,” Gill said. “That’s exactly how the process is supposed to work.”

McNeil said that in addition to being glad the charges were reduced, she was also grappling with why it happened.

She, a white woman, was the face of many national and international articles focused on the case, and she is certain that because of how she looks she was able to garner sympathy and outrage many of her co-defendants (and the long list of people of color charged before them) didn’t receive.

“Right now, I am really happy, also really angry,” McNeil said. “I can’t stop thinking about all of the people who are incarcerated in this county, who are being targeting by police, who don’t have this benefit of the doubt that I do.”

Protesters are still planning to rally on Saturday evening at the Capitol to bring awareness to other demonstrators who’ve been charged.

The hosting groups, including Justice for Bernardo and the Rose Park Brown Berets, are asking that prosecutors dismiss cases filed against all protesters since the 2019 Inland Port protests, including one in July where eight were arrested as they occupied the Salt Lake Chamber offices, decrying capitalism, colonialism, climate change and immigration laws. They also want Gill to resign, among other demands.

McNeil said any time the state tells people how to protest — like she said prosecutors are doing by charging demonstrators for how they expressed their discontent at demonstrations — it’s wrong.

She said, “It’s designed to scare people away from voicing their concerns and demonstrating against what they perceive to be injustice.”

The event starts at 6 p.m. and will include a rally and march.