Shamar Betts never thought of himself as a radical. Last year, when he was 18 years old, he had a minimum-wage job at a camp for preschoolers in Urbana, Illinois, teaching them to play chess and explore nature. In a parents’ handbook, Betts described himself as a vegetarian who didn’t “believe in harming any living being.”
As Covid-19 spread, Betts’s hours were reduced to zero, leaving him with more free time. When a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd on May 25, resulting in a flood of civil unrest, he felt called to action; his best friend had been killed by Chicago police in 2017. He attended a small march where there were more white people in attendance than Black; the crowd’s energy didn’t reflect the rage and pain that he felt.
So the next morning, Betts posted a flyer on his Facebook page, calling for a riot at a local shopping mall in Champaign on May 31. “Ya’ll don’t think we suffer through inequality here EVERYDAY,” Betts wrote. “They didn’t listen when we were peaceful so we gone hit em where it hurts,” he added. The flyer asked participants to bring “friends & family, posters, bricks, bookbags etc.”
At the shopping mall, he broadcast himself on Facebook Live as people around him took items from an Old Navy, boasting that he had “started” the riot. Twenty-seven people were taken into custody and an estimated 50 businesses were damaged. That same day, U.S. Attorney General William Barr denounced nationwide rioting as “domestic terrorism” linked to “Antifa and other similar groups,” and said that federal law enforcement was working with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces to apprehend people.
Days later, U.S. marshals located Betts, who was staying at his uncle’s home in Tchula, Mississippi. They banged on the door at 6 a.m., Betts said, and forced him to crawl toward them as they held assault rifles. He was charged in both Illinois and federal courts but detained under federal authority for “using a facility of interstate commerce” — the internet, specifically Facebook — to incite a riot; he faces up to five years in prison. He’s never been convicted of a crime.
Betts was far from the only one charged in connection with events that occurred during the first explosive week after Floyd’s death, or over the rest of the summer. U.S. attorney’s offices across the country working under Barr brought federal charges against more than 300 people on a range of alleged crimes related to the unrest, according to the Prosecution Project, which tracks felony cases involving political violence. The Intercept and Type Investigations reviewed the cases of 271 people charged through October 15; at least 107 of those cases are felony prosecutions for crimes allegedly committed that first week.
The charges were filed almost exclusively against protesters and others whose actions, legal and otherwise, could reasonably be identified as supportive of the movement for police accountability; we did not analyze about a dozen federal cases involving members of far-right groups or individuals who sympathize with those ideologies.
Analyzing court documents for each of these cases, we uncovered a pattern of aggressive federal prosecutions for crimes not usually in the purview of U.S. attorney’s offices. Charges for civil unrest, such as burning a police vehicle, looting, or property destruction, might typically be handled by state prosecutor’s offices, according to experts we spoke with. During Barack Obama’s entire presidency, we could only identify 11 cases related to protests and uprisings prosecuted by U.S. attorneys, and only one in which someone was charged with promoting or encouraging a riot. By comparison, we identified at least five charges of inciting a riot — under a rarely used statute dating back to 1968 — during this one week in Donald Trump’s term, including those against Betts.
Apart from filing what critics consider excessive charges, federal prosecutors made a concerted push to detain the defendants before their trials. The Intercept and Type Investigations did a closer analysis of the 151 felony cases stemming from the unrest that had been filed as of early September and found that federal judges agreed to detain more than 50 people until trial, concurring with prosecutors’ arguments for detention.
“This is a clear example of using federal prosecution power to further a political agenda that the administration has.”
Under the Bail Reform Act, pretrial incarceration without bail is generally reserved for those who judges believe present a danger to the community or a demonstrated risk of fleeing; it is supposed to be the exception, not the rule, experts told us. Yet there’s been a sharp increase in federal prosecutors requesting pretrial detention since 2018, starting under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and continuing under Barr. Overall for fiscal year 2019, federal district courts detained 61 percent of defendants pretrial, excluding immigration-related offenses.
In some of the civil unrest cases we reviewed, federal judges expressed disbelief that prosecutors were trying to have protesters detained. One judge said he was “at a loss” for why prosecutors were trying to hold a protester in jail until trial.
Even when judges were ready to release defendants, prosecutors kept seeking detention, appealing judges’ decisions in at least 18 cases. Prosecutors appealed the release of at least three defendants all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals, a rare move, according to two former federal prosecutors and two former public defenders interviewed for this story.
Keeping people in jail was especially risky this past summer. By early October, more than 5,000 people in federal pretrial custody across the country had tested positive for the coronavirus. At least one person charged in the aftermath of unrest and detained pretrial has contracted Covid-19, according to our investigation.
The Department of Justice did not respond to a list of questions from The Intercept and Type Investigations about the degree to which these prosecutions were directed by high-level officials, including Barr.
Decisions to charge — and how aggressively — are made by individual U.S. attorneys; the same is true for detention requests. But the department’s priorities significantly influence which cases are pursued, and Barr has made it clear that curbing “violent rioters and anarchists” is a priority for the department. Trump has also been highly critical of protesters (this reporter was one of more than 200 people who were arrested and charged during the protests against his inauguration in Washington, D.C., but later had their charges dropped).
Some of the prosecutors asking for harsh penalties against protesters and detention without bail have shown a willingness to pursue the administration’s political goals. A few of the most aggressive prosecutors either held or were nominated for positions at the DOJ in which they assisted with counter-investigations into Ukraine and Russian election-meddling involving close associates of Trump.
For Kristy Parker, counsel at Protect Democracy and a former deputy chief in the criminal section of the DOJ’s civil rights division, these prosecutions also have a political motive.
“The Department of Justice has a lot of discretion in deciding what kinds of cases to bring or not bring and what kinds of pretrial detention to seek or not seek,” she said. “This is a clear example of using federal prosecution power to further a political agenda that the administration has.”
In nearly all of their appeals regarding the detention of protesters, prosecutors were unsuccessful in keeping people locked up until trial. There were only three defendants for whom prosecutors succeeded in overturning a lower court’s order of pretrial release. Among them was Shamar Betts.
When Betts arrived at the jail in Madison County, Mississippi, after his arrest on June 5, officers placed him alone inside a pod large enough to hold more than two dozen people, he recalled.
During his physical exam, he was shackled and accompanied by two officers, Betts said in an interview by phone last month. He had no television or access to a phone, he said, and one guard told him he was being looked at as “a type of activist.” The jail directed questions about his incarceration to the U.S. Marshals Service.
In response to questions about Betts’s account, the U.S. Marshals Service did not respond to individual allegations but emailed a statement describing security precautions as “for the safekeeping of all prisoners and facility staff based on information available at the time of detention.”
Betts, who had never heard of the charge “inciting a riot” before his arrest, was terrified. “I didn’t know exactly what they would do to me,” he said.
After his detention in Mississippi, Betts was herded onto a transport plane loaded with other shackled prisoners that went on to pick up people from several other states.
Later in June, he was brought to a jail in Grady County, Oklahoma, and held in a 42-person pod. Before he arrived, at least one prisoner at the facility reportedly died from Covid-19. The U.S. Marshals Service did not test prisoners for the virus before loading them onto planes or buses at that time, the Marshall Project reported.
Betts’s aunt Ashley Morris said it’s “devastating” that her nephew is still in jail. She helped raise him in Jackson, Mississippi, where he moved from Chicago after his mother died from complications caused by a muscle disease when he was 11. He never fully adjusted to that loss, Morris said; earlier this year, Betts posted photos of his mother on Facebook, writing, “I think about how much happier my life would’ve been with you here.”
Compounding his misery in Mississippi were humiliating encounters with the police, who Betts said referred to him using racial slurs. During one incident, Betts recalled, an officer arbitrarily stopped him and a friend while they were walking, stood on his foot so he wouldn’t run, and forced him to place his hands on a scorching hot police vehicle while he was searched.
After a few years in Mississippi, Betts moved with his older brother to Champaign two years ago.
“You took this one incident and blew it extremely out of proportion,” Morris said of Betts’s prosecution. “You’re not understanding the frustration that they have because they see all these killings, and this mistreatment, and nothing is done about it. As if we’re not even human.”
In early July, the court appointed Betts an attorney, Liz Pollock, a federal public defender whose child had coincidentally been supervised by Betts at the camp where he worked. The same day she was appointed, U.S. attorneys pressed a magistrate judge to keep Betts detained until trial.
Pollock convinced the judge to delay making a decision so she could prepare a defense for Betts’s detention hearing to try to get him released from jail.
Most of the prosecutions examined by The Intercept and Type Investigations involved property damage, arson, and possessing devices such as Molotov cocktails. Many of these cases could have been handled by state prosecutor’s offices rather than the federal government, and traditionally are, according to Rob Singer, who worked as a federal prosecutor for eight years, including under the George W. Bush administration.
“When I was a federal prosecutor, the first thing I’d do is write up a memo to my boss [describing why] we should prosecute a case under federal charges,” Singer said. “That vetting process is not something that happens overnight. It usually takes weeks, sometimes several months, to resolve.”
In the months after Floyd’s killing, Trump blamed the widespread looting and arson on “anarchists and agitators,” while Barr derided Black Lives Matter protesters as “essentially Bolsheviks” bent on revolution. An analysis by the Associated Press found that “very few” of those charged seemed to have links to highly organized extremist groups. None of the charging documents reviewed by The Intercept and Type Investigations indicated defendants’ ties to anarchist or anti-fascist ideologies as motivating factors in alleged criminal behavior.
Such inflammatory statements from top officials, along with the mass prosecutions of protesters, are “completely unprecedented,” according to Roy Austin, a former deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s civil rights division. “To even be prosecuting these cases federally,” he said, “it’s purely for message sending.”
To keep protesters in jail pending trial, federal prosecutors across the country are telling judges to ignore mitigating factors that typically weigh in favor of release.
Richard Donoghue, who was the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York when the office opened a case against Colinford Mattis and Urooj Rahman, two lawyers accused of torching a cop car in Brooklyn, approved an appeal to the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals asking judges to detain the defendants before trial. Neither has a criminal record and both have extensive community ties, but federal prosecutors argued these facts shouldn’t matter because the defendants’ positive attributes did not prevent them from committing the alleged crime.
This reasoning was a “misconstruing of bail laws,” according to Brian Jacobs, a former assistant U.S. attorney who disputed the “novel” reasoning in an amicus brief co-signed by 56 other former federal prosecutors.
Donoghue was promoted by Barr in July to top deputy for Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey A. Rosen, who had assigned Donoghue to supervise all DOJ investigations into Ukraine following Trump’s impeachment. The person Barr picked to replace him, Seth Ducharme, worked with Barr as his counselor to investigate the Mueller investigation.
In Cleveland, the U.S. attorney’s office sought pretrial detention for at least four defendants charged with crimes related to the protests. The U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Ohio, Justin Herdman, was nominated by Trump in May to oversee the U.S. attorney’s office in D.C., which handles both local and federal cases.
Pretrial incarceration without bail is supposed to be the exception, not the rule.
One of the Cleveland cases involves T’Andre Buchanan, a 22-year-old man who was arrested after smashing the window of a cupcake shop during unrest on May 30. A pretrial services report recommended that Buchanan be released, but federal prosecutors still tried to have him detained.
In an appeal of Buchanan’s release by a magistrate judge, Assistant U.S. Attorney Scott Zarzycki argued that Buchanan’s redeeming personal characteristics — his employment as a customer service representative with Spectrum, his lack of criminal record, and his stable family and community ties — paled in comparison to his alleged crimes. District Judge Pamela Barker denied the government’s motion and ordered Buchanan free on bond with a GPS monitor, noting simply that “the court was not persuaded by the government’s arguments.”
In the case of Cyril Lartigue, a 25-year-old arrested in Austin, Texas, after a surveillance camera filmed him fiddling with what prosecutors argued was a Molotov cocktail, Assistant U.S. Attorney Keith Henneke argued that Lartigue should be detained. He showed up to the protest with “gloves and goggles and a hard hat,” Henneke said, signaling confrontational intent.
The magistrate judge, Andrew Austin, grew sour, questioning how prosecutors could argue that Lartigue, who had “no criminal history” and a “stable family,” should remain imprisoned until trial.
“I’m frustrated,” Austin said. “I have defendants in here with significant criminal histories the government agrees to release, who sell drugs to children and other things, because they’ll cooperate.”
Before the hearing ended, Henneke requested that Austin stay the release order, citing guidance from his supervisors in the U.S. attorney’s office to appeal the decision to a higher court. A district judge upheld Austin’s decision in a one-page ruling the next day.
The U.S. attorney who initiated Lartigue’s prosecution, John Bash, resigned in early October to work in the private sector after cultivating a close relationship to the Trump administration. He was previously a special assistant to the president and tapped by Barr in May to investigate the “unmasking” of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was convicted of lying to the FBI about his phone call with a Russian diplomat in December 2016. The DOJ is now seeking to have Flynn’s charges dismissed.
The advocacy for pretrial detention by U.S. attorney’s offices in unrest cases may signal a broader shift in the DOJ, according to Jacobs.
“Bail is supposed to be the rule,” he said. “The question is whether at any point the pendulum has swung too far to the point where detention is becoming the norm rather than bail.”
In July, Shamar Betts was transferred from Oklahoma to a jail in nearby Macon County, Illinois.
His prosecution in the Central District of Illinois is being overseen by U.S. Attorney John Milhiser, who Trump appointed in 2018. Milhiser declined to respond to a list of written questions, but earlier this year, he was interviewed by NPR about a call for Barr’s resignation by two former U.S. attorneys in Illinois, who cited Barr’s request for leniency for Roger Stone, an ally of the president. “Politics plays no part in anything we do in the office,” Milhiser said.
Days before Betts’s detention hearing on July 13, his lawyer secured assurance from his former boss at the camp that she would house him during his pretrial wait. During the hearing, held over videoconference, the teen listened as Assistant U.S. Attorney Eugene Miller made the case before Magistrate Judge Eric Long to keep Betts locked up.
“In looking at the nature and circumstances to this offense, thinking about this case, I cannot recall any other single incident — in the last 20 years at least that I’ve been a federal prosecutor — that has endangered the safety of the entire Champaign-Urbana community more than this offense,” Miller said.
Betts’s lawyer, Liz Pollock, pushed back, arguing that there was no way of knowing the degree to which his post propelled people into the streets.
“I’m still confused how they could look at me as a threat to the community.”
“Is it not possible that the unrest that has scoured the country after the murder of George Floyd has caused many people to become upset about the state of criminal justice and the state of institutional racism that Black men have been dealing with … for years and years and years?” Pollock stated.
Long ruled for Betts’s release, citing his past employment and clean criminal record. Betts was then transferred to the Champaign County Satellite Jail, where he could be released on a $100,000 state bond. An activist group had already volunteered to pay it.
But the next day, after U.S. attorneys filed an emergency motion appealing Betts’s release, District Judge Michael Mihm overruled Long’s decision and ordered Betts detained until trial.
Today, Betts remains on a federal hold in a jail where at least 16 detainees have contracted Covid-19 since May; he is diabetic and asthmatic and worries about being exposed to the virus. Before being jailed, he was a committed vegetarian, but the lack of healthy options forced him to start eating meat again.
Betts’s trial is scheduled for November, but it could be postponed due to Covid-19 closures. In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit curtly denied his lawyer’s appeal of Mihm’s order of detention. On October 1, Pollock filed a motion to dismiss his indictment, citing constitutional challenges to the federal riot statute under which Betts is charged.
Like many of the other protest-related cases reviewed by The Intercept and Type Investigations, Betts’s case elicited fierce and polarizing opinions in his community as the Trump campaign stoked fears of unrest. After the local press picked up his case, several people sent angry emails to his former employer, demanding that the camp publicly denounce him.
For Betts, the experience has been as perplexing as it has been difficult. On October 4, he turned 20; his family tried sending him extra funds for his birthday, but he says he had trouble receiving them through the jail’s commissary.
“I wouldn’t consider myself as a dangerous activist,” Betts maintains. “I’m still confused how they could look at me as a threat to the community.”
Research assistance by Nina Zweig.