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Utah protesters who splashed red paint and broke windows could face up to life in prison because of "gang enhancement"

Black Lives Matter protesters in Salt Lake City have been accused of splashing paint on a road and smashing the windows of the district attorney's building at a July protest — and now, the charges they face carry a maximum sentence of life in prison. 

Prosecutors charged multiple protesters with the crimes on Wednesday, The Associated Press reported. The charges have more severe consequences because Salt Lake City District Attorney Sim Gill upgraded them with a "gang enhancement," which increases the penalties for "offenses committed in concert with two or more person or in relation to a criminal street gang," according to state code. 

With the enhancement, second-degree felony charges, which usually have a sentence of 1 to 15 years, can be upgraded to life in prison.

Prosecutors said that these charges are justified because protesters worked together to cause thousands of dollars in damage, the AP said

One of those protesters is 28-year-old Madalena McNeil, who, according to arrest records, was charged with felonies of criminal mischief and rioting, according to CBS affiliate KUTV. Records claim McNeil bought red paint from Home Depot prior to a July 9 protest, and later shoved a police officer. 

The July 9 protest was held after Gill said the officer-involved shooting that resulted in the death of Bernardo Palacio was justified, according to KUTV.

McNeil, who said she spent Tuesday night in jail but has since been released, told KUTV that she didn't do anything wrong, but that "it would be silly to look at the potential of life in prison and not be scared." 

She tweeted about what happened on Wednesday, confirming that she has been charged with a felony for "shifting my weight in front of a cop." 

"This is unacceptable," McNeil tweeted," not just for me, but for everyone involved." 

Despite Gill upgrading the charges against the protesters, he told the Associated Press that he doesn't think "anyone is going to be going to prison on this." Criminal cases are often resolved when defendants plead to lesser counts, the AP said.

"This is not about protest. This is about people who are engaging in criminal conduct," he said. 

Gill's charges have been met with fierce opposition in Salt Lake City, including from Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall.

The "potential punishment facing some protesters is excessive," she said in a video tweeted Wednesday.  

"While I believe there should be consequences for breaking the law, the potential to spend life in prison for buying paint is too severe," she added.

The Salt Lake Tribune reported that many have accused the district attorney of filing excessive charges, and have criticized the charges as a conflict of interest. The broken windows and splattered paint were a part of his office building and the surrounding area, and protesters have denounced the attorney by name, the Tribune reports. 

According to the newspaper, seven people have been charged with first-degree felonies for allegedly helping buy, transport or help splatter the paint in the street, or for breaking windows. Attorneys for some of the defendants described the charges to the Tribune as "retaliatory" and claimed that Gill is "upset at the damage to his beautiful building." 

KUTV reported that prosecutors estimate protesters caused more than $50,000 worth of damage to the DA's office.

Attorney Jason Groth, social justice coordinator at ACLU of Utah, told the AP that by using these enhanced charges, prosecutors are "calling participants in a protest gang members." 

Gill has said that while it was his office that filed the charges, it will be someone else who handles the case, the Salt Lake Tribune reported. But Groth explained that Gill still made the decision to charge these protesters. 

"That's one of the powerful things about being a prosecutor," he told the Tribune. "You do have those options. You can make those decisions. And how you decide or decide not to make those decisions not only impacts the trajectory of an individual's case, but the entire criminal justice system."

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