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Federal authorities charge 6 in connection with Charleston, Columbia riots

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Demonstrators are confronted by police on Saturday, May 30, 2020 in Charleston. Andrew J. Whitaker/Staff

Six people in South Carolina face federal charges in connection with rioting in Charleston and Columbia that erupted in late May following protests over the death of George Floyd, the Black man whose killing by Minneapolis police led to civil unrest from coast to coast. 

The charges come amid a wave of crackdowns by federal authorities across the country following hard-line calls from President Donald Trump and U.S. Attorney General William Barr to quell the violence seething through America's cities. Prosecutors have leaned on federal laws enacted in the tumultuous 1960s to pile stiff penalties on unruly protesters from Oregon to Minnesota, where Floyd died after a White police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

The smashing, burning and pillaging that consumed downtown Charleston on the night of May 30 represented the worst rioting the city had seen in a century. More than 2,000 protesters came to the city that afternoon to rally against Floyd's killing, but the peaceful event devolved into chaos as night fell, leaving more than 150 businesses damaged. Columbia's rioting that same weekend left several police cars destroyed, shops vandalized and graffiti sprayed across many locations.

The U.S. Attorney's Office for South Carolina announced the charges Tuesday morning. They include firearms violations, arson, violating the federal Anti-Riot Act and interfering with law enforcement during a period of civil unrest. 

"On May 30, 2020, violent agitators disrupted and distracted from peaceful protests in Columbia and Charleston and committed violent acts against citizens and law enforcement officers, vandalizing businesses and destroying public property," Peter McCoy, the U.S. Attorney for South Carolina, said. "By escalating and inciting violence, these individuals interfered with the legitimate forms of expression and constitutionally-protected activity."

Court documents lay out the charges against six people: 

  • Charleston residents Abraham Jenkins, 26, and Tearra Guthrie, 23, entered plea agreements on one count each of interfering with law enforcement during a civil disorder. 
  • Kelsey Jackson, 28, of Charleston, entered a plea agreement on one count of arson related to setting fire to a Charleston police car during the rioting. 
  • Orlando King, 31, of North Charleston, entered a plea agreement on one count of violating the federal Anti-Riot Act. He was also charged with being a felon in possession of a firearm in connection with an unrelated incident on April 25. 
  • Karlos Gibson-Brown, 24, of Columbia, entered into a plea agreement on one count each of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition for a riot-related incident in Columbia on May 31. 
  • One defendant, 28-year-old Columbia resident Marcello Woods, does not have a plea agreement. He is accused of setting fire to a Columbia police car. 

The Post and Courier reached out to attorneys representing the defendants. Most did not return calls or declined to comment on the pending cases. 

Chris Adams, an attorney representing King, said his client went to Charleston to participate in peaceful protesting on May 30.

"At the time when peaceful protests gave way to some looting, Mr. King participated in looting and he’s accepting responsibility for that," Adams said. 

The attorney said he's reviewed video footage and there is no evidence of his client breaking windows, throwing bricks or engaging in any kind of violence, he said. The full extent of King's looting was taking a six-pack of Angry Orchard hard cider from a business, he said. 

Federal intervention

During a Charleston Public Safety Committee meeting Tuesday, Police Chief Luther Reynolds said he met with Barr, McCoy, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott about the riot. 

"In that meeting they shared their full support for prosecution of those cases and they have made good on their commitment and good on their word to make sure we've got as many federal adoptions as possible," Reynolds said. "In the federal side we tend to get significant jail times and that's what these offenders need."

Councilman Peter Shahid, a local attorney who also serves as the committee's chairman, said the people involved in the "higher-level violent" crimes were charged in federal court.

"Four of the six were directly related to Charleston and I understand there are more to come," Shahid said.

Mayor John Tecklenburg praised the collaboration between local, state and federal law enforcement in getting the cases into federal court. 

During Tuesday's meeting, Susan Herdina, the city attorney, said 47 people were arrested on May 31, the day after the riot, when police again clashed with protesters. Most faced low-level charges like disobeying officers' orders to disperse and curfew violations.  

Cases were scheduled for June 16 but prosecutors requested a continuance to review body camera footage, supplemental reports and interview police officers. Each case was considered by city attorneys, who recommended 27 cases be dismissed because they could find no evidence of violent activity. 

"These were peaceful protesters exercising their First Amendment right," Herdina said. 

Ninth Circuit Solicitor Scarlett Wilson, who oversees prosecutions of felony-level crimes in Charleston and Berkeley counties, said her office is working with federal prosecutors to ensure all of the alleged crimes from the riot are pursued at one level or another. She plans to forge ahead with the state charges that have been lodged, which include burglaries and some other crimes not covered in the federal indictments. 

“We aren’t looking to duplicate, but we do want to make sure all the crimes and all of the victims are covered by charges,” Wilson said. 

Cracking down

Trump has pledged for months to bring federal intervention to bear to squash turbulence in the nation’s streets, and Barr has been in close lockstep with the president. The day after the Charleston riot, the attorney general issued a statement saying federal authorities would pursue charges against “radical agitators” in cities across the country “who have hijacked peaceful protest and are engaged in violations of federal law.”

The next day, McCoy issued a similar call to action, saying his office would work with federal, state and local law enforcement agencies to protect citizens’ First Amendment rights while "protecting our communities from violence and destruction." That included using the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force to "to identify criminal organizers and instigators." 

McCoy, a former 9th Circuit prosecutor and state representative from James Island, became acting U.S. attorney for South Carolina in March and was confirmed for the job in mid-June. His office worked with city leaders in Charleston and Columbia, as well as the Richland and Charleston County sheriff’s offices, to review alleged acts from the riots that possibly constituted federal crimes. A few of them, such as setting fire to police cars, jumped off the page as clear federal offenses, federal officials said.

Similar approaches have been employed in Portland, Ore.; Minneapolis; and other cities that underwent violent unrest this summer. In doing so, authorities have relied on federal rioting and civil disorder statutes enacted in 1968 amid national protests over the Vietnam War and civil rights. The civil disorder law made it a federal crime to “to obstruct, impede, or interfere” with firefighters or police officers performing their duties or obstruct commerce.

In an Aug. 24 opinion, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals pared back some of the anti-riot law, finding that, "it treads too far upon constitutionally protected speech — in some of its applications." The opinion stated that "while the category of speech that lies at the core of the Anti-Riot Act’s prohibition, called 'incitement,' has never enjoyed First Amendment protection, the statute sweeps up a substantial amount of speech that remains protected advocacy."

Critics have accused the Trump administration of using the laws and resulting prosecutions to score political points ahead of the November elections. They contend that the approach is a heavy-handed overreach, inserting the federal government in looting, vandalism and assault cases that are more appropriately handled by local and state authorities.

Jonathan H. Adler, a professor at Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University School of Law, championed this view in a June article he penned for Reason magazine. He argued attempts to turn “local criminality into federal crimes” allows federal authorities “to select cases for federal prosecution not based upon any legitimate federal interest, but rather on whether a given case serves the political interests of the office, the Justice Department, or the Administration.”

Still, it is not particularly uncommon for state and federal prosecutors to pursue parallel cases stemming from the same crime, particularly in high-profile incidents. That’s what happened in the case of former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager, who ultimately received a 20-year federal sentence in the April 2015 killing of Walter Scott. And it happened in the case of white supremacist Dylann Roof, who killed nine Black worshippers at Emanuel AME Church in June 2015. Convicted in both state and federal court, Roof is currently on federal death row.

More commonly, state prosecutors have handed off gun cases involving repeat felons to their federal counterparts because the federal system carries heavier penalties for those offenses and longer prison terms.

Mikaela Porter and Avery Wilks contributed to this report. 

Reach Gregory Yee at 843-937-5908. Follow him on Twitter @GregoryYYee.

Gregory Yee covers breaking news and public safety. He's a native Angeleno and previously covered crime and courts for the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, CA. He studied journalism and Spanish literature at the University of California, Irvine.

Watchdog/Public Service Editor

Glenn Smith is editor of the Watchdog and Public Service team and helped write the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation, “Till Death Do Us Part.” He is a Connecticut native and a longtime crime reporter.

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