During George Floyd Protests, 2 Lawyers’ Futures Went Up in Flames

Colinford Mattis’s trajectory from a working-class upbringing in East New York to the Ivy League and corporate law abruptly ended at about 1 a.m. on May 30, 2020, when a Molotov cocktail ignited the center console of an empty police car during a Black Lives Matter protest.

On Thursday afternoon, Judge Brian M. Cogan of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn will sentence Mr. Mattis, one of two young lawyers who burned the vehicle during the protests in Brooklyn days after the murder of George Floyd.

Mr. Mattis has lost his law license, having pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit arson and acknowledging he had broken the law he had sworn to uphold. He runs the risk of losing much more: the guardianship and planned adoption of three foster children. The oldest is 14.

“He has taken responsibility for his crime and is deeply ashamed,” Mr. Mattis’s defense lawyer wrote to Judge Cogan. Sending Mr. Mattis, 35, to prison would upend the lives of the children, said Sabrina P. Shroff, the lawyer.

As Judge Cogan decides the sentence, he must weigh the gravity of the fiery attack against the promise that remains in the disbarred defendant’s life — and the weight of his responsibilities.

In November, the judge sentenced Urooj Rahman, Mattis’s friend and a fellow lawyer, to 15 months in prison and two years of supervised release for the same crime. She was the primary caretaker of her aging mother. Judge Cogan called the sentence one of the most difficult he ever had to impose. After a lifetime of hard work and conscientiousness, he said, Ms. Rahman’s conduct was a violent aberration.

“You are a remarkable person who did a terrible thing on one night,” the judge told her.

The sentences close a case that stunned the city, devastated two families and exposed deep fissures between the police and the community. They reflect a long negotiation with the U.S. attorney’s office in Brooklyn, which at first sought steep charges and had pushed to deny bail to Mr. Rahman and Ms. Mattis, both first-time offenders.

A Police Department at a Critical Moment

The New York Police Department is facing challenges on several fronts.

  • Looking Abroad: Abdullah el-Faisal became the first person to face trial under state laws passed after Sept. 11, but he was nowhere near New York when the offenses he is accused of took place.
  • Deborah Danner Shooting: A year after an administrative trial, Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell is still weighing whether to fire Sgt. Hugh Barry, who killed a mentally ill woman in her Bronx bedroom in 2016.
  • Scuttled Cases: An ex-detective went on trial after being charged with perjury. He was accused of five wrongful arrests, but hundreds of cases are endangered.
  • No Threat: Federal authorities dropped a case that accused an officer of acting as an illegal agent for China. They had originally claimed he was keeping tabs on Tibetans in the city, and called him an “insider threat.”

They had been high achievers, children of immigrant families who were raised in New York. Ms. Rahman pursued public interest law, co-authoring a paper on police reform in 2014 and working at Bronx Legal Services. Mr. Mattis followed a more lucrative corporate path. But he was already teetering in his career and personal life when the protests occurred.

The events that led to their downfall began in an unsettled spring.

Mr. Mattis had been furloughed in March from his job as an associate at the law firm Pryor Cashman, and the pandemic had cut him off from outside support as he took care of the children, his lawyer wrote.

Then, on May 25, video of Mr. Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who died in Minneapolis after his neck was pinned to the ground by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, ignited protests. There were demonstrations in at least 140 cities across the United States.

In New York, peaceful protests turned into confrontations with police. Throughout the weekend, demonstrators clashed with officers in Union Square in Manhattan and outside the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, resulting in injuries and hundreds of arrests.

On May 29, according to court documents, Mr. Mattis had been drinking throughout the day as he exchanged despairing messages over the murder of Mr. Floyd with friends, including Ms. Rahman, who were mobilizing to join a protest in Brooklyn. That evening, Ms. Rahman, who was 31 at the time,  met Mr. Mattis after he made stops to buy supplies, including gasoline, and joined a swell of protesters in Brooklyn.

Shortly after midnight, with Mr. Mattis at the wheel, according to court filings, they drove in a tan minivan to a police precinct in Clinton Hill. After trying to persuade a bystander to throw a bottle that she was holding, Ms. Rahman got out of the van herself, walked toward an empty police patrol car that had already been damaged by protesters and threw the Molotov cocktail through its broken window before fleeing.

She and Mr. Mattis were arrested shortly afterward on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn and held in jail for several days before they were released to home confinement.

It was a politically fraught moment after New York police officers had arrested hundreds of people during the protests, many on charges of disorderly conduct, resisting arrest and unlawful assembly. District attorneys said they would not prosecute many of the nonviolent cases.

Brooklyn federal prosecutors, then part of the Trump Justice Department, appealed twice to keep them behind bars, saying that the two lawyers had tried to incite others to similar attacks. But more than 50 former federal prosecutors signed a public letter urging the appeals court to reject the U.S. attorney’s office’s argument for detention, saying it contradicted settled bail law.

In June 2020, a grand jury returned an indictment against Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman that included seven counts, including arson, use of explosives and civil disorder.

In November 2021, after President Biden had taken office and new leadership had taken over in the Department of Justice, Ms. Rahman and Mr. Mattis each pleaded guilty to one count of possessing and making an incendiary device. Last June, those charges were dismissed as part of a deal with prosecutors, and both pleaded guilty to a count of conspiracy to commit arson.

At Ms. Rahman’s sentencing, Judge Cogan’s courtroom was packed with her friends and family. She faced up to five years under federal guidelines, and the government asked for 18 months to two years. Her lawyer, Peter Baldwin, asked the court to impose only supervised release, saying his client had experienced “a dangerous and reprehensible lapse of judgment.”

“Urooj’s emotions, her anger, her despair, her rage, got the better of her,” he told the judge. Since the incident, Ms. Rahman had been in therapy and Alcoholics Anonymous, Mr. Baldwin said. “She will be a productive and law-abiding member of society.”

Ms. Rahman was born in Pakistan and grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn; she graduated from Fordham Law School and had always been drawn to public interest work, a commitment for which Judge Cogan praised her.

When she addressed the court, Ms. Rahman cried as she spoke about her mother’s grief. “I don’t think there are enough words to express my sorrow and regret,” she told the court. “My sole intention was to lend my voice to other New Yorkers in the pursuit of justice. I completely lost my way in the emotions of the night.”

She is to report to federal prison in Connecticut on Tuesday.

Mr. Mattis has already spent nearly a month in jail, has taken a leadership role in his Alcoholics Anonymous chapter and is at no risk of reoffending, his lawyers said in the memorandum to the judge.

Ms. Shroff, his defense attorney, told the judge how Mr. Mattis, the son of immigrants from Jamaica and St. Vincent, grew up in a chaotic home. Though early on he struggled academically, he went on to graduate from boarding school, then attended Princeton University and New York University’s law school.

When he was in his second year of law school, his father, Kingcolinford Mattis, was stabbed to death during a robbery in St. Vincent. His son used alcohol to dull his pain, Ms. Shroff wrote.

After law school, when he took a job at a law firm in 2016, he was often late or absent, court documents said. His yearslong dependency on alcohol worsened. He was asked to leave the firm just as his mother was diagnosed with uterine cancer and became her primary caregiver until her death in 2019, even as he worked at another firm.

After she died, Mr. Mattis took over her role as the foster parent for the three children he is now in the process of trying to adopt. He is also the primary caretaker for his 15-year-old nephew.

Shortly after the pandemic hit in March 2020 and Mr. Mattis was furloughed, his drinking increased, according to court filings.

On May 29, 2020, hours before he joined the protests, Mr. Mattis watched the video of Mr. Floyd’s murder for the first time and began to cry.

Within hours, court records said, Mr. Mattis was driving the minivan quickly away from the burning police sedan with open bottles of Bud Light, a funnel, a half-full red gas can and rolls of toilet paper.

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