Felony murder in a good cause

When the authorities let the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct headquarters burn following the death of George Floyd on Memorial Day 2020, all hell broke loose. Thugs from all over the state made their way to the Twin Cities to participate in the orgy of riots, destruction and looting that spread throughout the Twin Cities.

One such participant was Montez Terriel Lee, Jr. Lee came up to the Twin Cities from Rochester to get in on the action on May 28. Equipped with a gasoline can for the occasion, Lee was part of a small group that broke into the Max It Pawn Shop on East Lake Street in Minneapolis. They looted the pawn shop. Lee poured out a can of gasoline and ignited a fire that consumed the shop.

Videos captured the action. Lee was proud of it. Filmed outside the shop as it burned, Lee commented: “Fuck this place. We’re gonna burn this bitch down.”

Bystanders knew someone had been caught in the fire. Two months later the authorities found Oscar Lee Stewart, Jr. in the charred remains of the pawn shop. The Star Tribune covered that part of the case here.

The Hennepin County Medical Examiner found that Stewart had probably died of injuries and smoke inhalation as a result of the fire. I take it that Stewart himself was unlawfully in the pawn shop at the time of his death.

Lee is not a good citizen. At the time of the arson, he had a rap sheet with convictions for burglary, assault, violation of a no contact order, and theft of property. Indeed, Lee was under a sentence for the prior assault in Olmsted County (Rochester). He is that kind of guy.

Lee pleaded guilty to the arson charge. He committed felony murder in the process of the arson. Federal sentencing guidelines suggested that a sentence of 20 years was appropriate, but the prosecutor argued for 12.

Alpha News posted the prosecutor’s sentencing memo online here. At page 3 the prosecutor included two video screenshots of Lee in action.

Reasonable minds can disagree about the appropriate sentence. However, the prosecutor’s rationale for leniency is, shall we say, troubling (citation omitted):

The Guidelines state that departure below this range is not ordinarily appropriate. However this is an extraordinary case. The United States therefore seeks a downward variance, and a sentence of 144 months.

Mr. Lee’s motive for setting the fire is a foremost issue. Mr. Lee credibly states that he was in the streets to protest unlawful police violence against black men, and there is no basis to disbelieve this statement. Mr. Lee, appropriately, acknowledges that he “could have demonstrated in a different way,” but that he was “caught up in the fury of the mob after living as a black man watching his peers suffer at the hands of police.” As anyone watching the news world-wide knows, many other people in Minnesota were similarly caught up. There appear to have been many people in those days looking only to exploit the chaos and disorder in the interests of personal gain or random violence. There appear also to have been many people who felt angry, frustrated, and disenfranchised, and who were attempting, in many cases in an unacceptably reckless and dangerous manner, to give voice to those feelings. Mr. Lee appears to be squarely in this latter category. And even the great American advocate for non-violence and social justice, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stated in an interview with CBC’s Mike Wallace in 1966 that “we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.” Lily Rothman, What Martin Luther King Jr Really Thought About Riots, Time Magazine (2015), https://time.com/3838515.

In light of these circumstances, the analysis of the Guidelines does not appear appropriate.

Judge Wilhelmina Wright sentenced Lee to 10 years last week. The Star Tribune covers the sentencing here.

I wrote warmly about Judge Wright when she was confirmed in 2016. The Star Tribune story gives virtually no sense of her view of the case. I don’t know whether she bought some part of the prosecutor’s all-in-a-good-cause rationale. If she did, however, that is troubling too.

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