Big crowd watches Utah protesters in court for alleged paint crimes

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Protesters chant “too much blood,” as they react to the announced ruling by Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill on Thursday, July 9, 2020, that the shooting death of 22-year-old Bernardo Palacios-Carbajal in May by police officers was legally justified. Angry over the ruling, they painted the district attorney building red and covered it with posters.

More than 150 people tuned in Tuesday to watch eight protesters make their first court appearance on allegations they damaged the Salt Lake County District Attorney’s Office building and the nearby street during a July rally.

The hearing, like nearly all court proceedings right now in Utah, happened over video conferencing software, and had some of the all-too-familiar virtual obstacles people have grown accustomed to as work has moved online during the pandemic.

Third District Judge Richard Mrazik at one point muted Dane Nolan, the special prosecutor hired to take the case, so a defense attorney could speak. Another defendant later had to be reminded to unmute herself.

There were frozen screens, and a dizzying array of video feeds of defendants, defense attorneys and members of the public. The judge eventually asked everyone who wasn’t a defendant or an attorney to turn off their cameras so he could figure out who had logged in for their court appearances.

And when defense attorney Jesse Nix commented on the number of people who attended the public hearing, Mrazik said it had been a hassle for his team. The judge’s staff received hundreds of emails from people asking for the meeting code so they could attend.

The hearing ended up being incremental, with defense attorneys asking to come back Oct. 6 so they had time to review the evidence before deciding what to do next.

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 Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill announced he 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.

The protesters initially faced first-degree felony charges, a decision that was criticized by defense attorneys and advocates as being too harsh. To avoid a conflict of interest, Gill hired Nolan, a retired judge, to prosecute the cases.

Nolan’s first move as prosecutor was to reduce the charges.

Four of the protesters — Madalena 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 a class C misdemeanor count of disorderly conduct.

Emanuel Hill’s charges were lessened to one count of second-degree felony criminal mischief. Madison Alleman’s and Viviane Turman’s charges 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 her 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.