Lawyers

US attorney says free speech no protection in arson case

  • Melquan Barnett was indicted on federal charge that he set fire to Ember + Forge coffee shop during riot in downtown Erie on May 30
  • Barnett, 28. is claiming federal prosecution is politically motivated
  • In newly filed response, U.S. Attorney’s Office says charge is justified, calls Barnett’s claims “frivolous”

The legal rift has intensified in the federal arson case that grew out of the rioting in downtown Erie on the night of May 30.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is sharply criticizing the claims of the defendant, Melquan Barnett, 28, who says he is the victim of “selective prosecution” on a charge that he set fire to the Ember + Forge coffee shop during the civil unrest.

The government said that Barnett, who is Black, is making “frivolous” claims that he was engaged in free speech and that his race unfairly contributed to the decision to try him in U.S. District Court in Erie rather than Erie County Court, where the potential penalties would be less severe.

Broken glass litters the sidewalk outside Ember + Forge coffee shop in the 400 block of State Street in downtown Erie on May 31, the day after a fire was set inside the shop during rioting downtown.

“Violent rioting, as opposed to peaceful protest, is not a First Amendment activity,” the U.S. Attorney’s Office said in a filing docketed in U.S. District Court in Erie on Thursday.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said it and the Department of Justice are justified in prosecuting Barnett, who in his filings so far has not challenged evidence that he set the fire. Investigators used video to identify him.

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