POLITICS

2 Lawyers Of Color Face 45-Year Sentences — For Vandalism

Trump-appointed judges rescinded Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman's initial release on bond. Their next bail hearing is Tuesday.
Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis
Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis

In a high school English assignment in which students were asked to describe themselves as a metaphor, Colinford King Mattis had a lot of fun with his essay.  

Mattis described himself as a piece of vintage furniture that you aren’t sure you want, but you bring it home anyway and put it in a room — and it somehow perfectly brings the room together, and you don’t know how you lived without it in the first place.

In recent days, dozens of colleagues, friends and former classmates have come together and reached for the same hopeful metaphor. As the 32-year-old lawyer sits in a Brooklyn jail awaiting a bail hearing, they say they can’t imagine a room without Mattis in it. He is a loyal and community-minded man who poses no threat to society and deserves to be released pending trial, they argue.

Mattis, along with Urooj Rahman, 31, was arrested in New York City on May 30 during protests against racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers. The two were charged with attempting to burn an unoccupied, already damaged New York City Police Department vehicle. Nobody was injured in the incident. Now Mattis and Rahman face additional federal charges that carry a 45-year mandatory minimum sentence, and up to life in prison — for what essentially amounts to property damage.

Activists and lawyers are alarmed by the unusually harsh charges being brought against them, and believe Mattis and Rahman should not be awaiting trial in jail. They say that they are not a threat to society — which the prosecution is arguing — and it is highly unlikely they’re a flight risk or will commit another crime. Mattis is a corporate lawyer educated at Princeton and NYU Law; Rahman went to Fordham Law and works for Bronx Legal Services, helping low-income clients fight evictions in housing court. Both grew up in New York and are deeply connected to their communities.

Mattis and Rahman — a Black man and Muslim woman — sit in jail at the same time that the police officers who fatally shot Breonna Taylor have not even had charges brought against them.

The contrast is particularly stark at this moment people around the world are rising up and demonstrating against racism. Lawyers familiar with their case say it is highly unusual for defendants like Mattis and Rahman — Ivy-league educated and human-rights minded with no history of violence — to be held in jail, and not out on bail. 

The decision of whether defendants are released or detained pending trial will determine whether they can be at home contributing to their legal defense or whether they will be in jail, where COVID-19 continues to run rampant; where inmates are frequently targets of violence; and where they are separated from their attorneys, peers and friends.

Hundreds of law students and professors from NYU — more than 850 — wrote to express their concern with the federal government’s aggressive charges and pursuit of pretrial detention; so did the Legal Services Staff Association union. Fordham Law School gathered 650 signatures from students and faculty. They wrote, “We believe that the Department of Justice’s prosecution and efforts to incarcerate Urooj and Colin are a gross overreach of federal law enforcement power, and an attempt to stifle and delegitimize dissent against police brutality.” 

The head of Mattis’s former high school, the boarding school St. Andrew’s in Delaware, issued a statement to the school community in support of their former student. HuffPost spoke to Darcy Caldwell, his former English teacher, who described him as a teenager who overcame enormous academic hurdles to become successful in her class.

“Colin has so much goodness to offer this world and I hope he has the chance to do that,” she said.

Alexa Caldwell, Darcy’s daughter, attended school with Mattis and was on a trip to a school conference with him in 2006. He was always social justice minded, Caldwell said. She remembers boarding the bus back to the hotel and how he and his friend Ikenna Iheoma couldn’t stop talking about a senator they met. It wasn’t someone she had heard of before — his name was Barack Obama. They even took a photo with him. 

Colin Mattis, right, with then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2006.
Colin Mattis, right, with then-Sen. Barack Obama in 2006.

Initially after their arrest, Mattis and Rahman went before the Magistrate Judge Steven M. Gold, who presided over their arraignment virtually. He found that Mattis and Rahman could safely be released with electronic monitoring. But then federal prosecutors appealed the ruling; they believed the two were a potential threat to society and a flight risk. The case was then examined by the District Judge Margo K. Brodie. She reviewed Judge Gold’s decision and determined that Mattis and Rahman should be released, too. Mattis and Rahman were released on a $250,000 bond to home confinement with GPS monitoring. 

From there the case took a highly unusual turn, according to lawyers familiar with it. Almost immediately, the government filed a notice of appeal. They announced that they were going to seek an emergency stay of the district court’s decision to send them home. On June 5, a three-judge panel in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit revoked Mattis and Rahman’s bond on the basis that the defendants were a continual danger to society. They were taken back into custody that day.

It is noteworthy that two of the three judges on the panel, Judge Michael H. Park and Judge William J. Nardini, were appointed by President Donald Trump, lawyers say.  

“The disproportionate prosecution of Urooj and Colin is another iteration of the Trump administration’s attempt to detract from police violence in the US,” the Fordham Law School signatories wrote in their open letter. “Indeed, Rahman, a Pakistani Muslim immigrant and Mattis, a young Black man, are convenient scapegoats given this country’s deeply entrenched and violent history of anti-Black racism and Islamophobia.”

It is an extraordinary move for the government to order them back in jail, said J. Wells Dixon, a senior staff attorney for the Center for Constitutional Rights. What stands in harsh contrast is the notion that if you are a white police officer standing accused of murdering a Black man, you get to be out on bail, he said. But if you are Black and Muslim, you are too dangerous to await trial from home. 

“It is an illustration of everything that is wrong with the criminal justice system,” Dixon said in a phone call with HuffPost. “It is the reason why thousands of people have taken to the streets around the world.”

Pretrial detention has enormous knock-on effects, according to the authors of a recent paper on what happens to defendants during the pretrial period. Being kept in detention during pretrial causally increases “the likelihood of a conviction, the severity of the sentence, and, in some jurisdictions, defendants’ likelihood of future contact with the criminal justice system.”

“They face a 45-year mandatory minimum,” Dixon said. “How do you square that? It is shocking and appalling that in the United States someone could spend 45 years in prison for vandalizing an empty police car that had been previously vandalized. That is not right.” 

On Tuesday, Mattis and Rahman will go before another panel of judges — none of them Trump appointees.

CORRECTION: This article initially stated that Derek Chauvin, the police officer who has been charged with killing George Floyd, had been released on bail. He has not.

testPromoTitleReplace testPromoDekReplace Join HuffPost Today! No thanks.