Montez Terriel Lee pleaded guilty to burning down a pawn shop in Minnesota during the May 2020 riots triggered by George Floyd's death. But Lee received a relatively light sentence, despite the arson resulting in one man's death, after prosecutors argued for leniency.
What is the background?
On May 28, 2020, Lee and others broke into the May It Pawn Shop in Minneapolis. According to the Justice Department, surveillance footage captured Lee "pouring a fire accelerant around the pawn shop and lighting the accelerant on fire. The fire destroyed the building."
About two months later, the remains of 30-year-old Oscar Lee Stewart were recovered in the rumble of where the pawn shop once stood. The Hennepin County Medical Examiner’s Office later ruled Stewart's death a homicide caused by the smoke and fire of the arson, KARE-TV reported.
In 2021, Lee pleaded guilty to a single count of arson. Despite the medical examiner's determination that Stewart died from the fire, Lee was never charged with Stewart's death.
On Jan. 14, Lee was sentenced to 120 months in prison, a significant "variance from sentencing guidance which outlined a 235- to 240-month sentence," the Rochester Post-Bulletin explained.
What did prosecutors say?
The federal attorneys tasked with prosecuting the case — W. Anders Folk and Thomas Calhoun-Lopez — pushed for a lenient sentence despite admitting that Lee "committed a crime that cost a man his life."
Describing the case as "extraordinary," the prosecutors asked for a sentence of just 144 months in federal prison, arguing that Lee's motive for the crime "is a foremost issue" in determining the appropriate punishment.
The prosecutors wrote in their sentencing memo:
Mr. Lee credibly states that he was in the streets to protest unlawful police violence against black men, and there is no basis to disbelieve this statement. Mr. Lee, appropriately, acknowledges that he “could have demonstrated in a different way,” but that he was “caught up in the fury of the mob after living as a black man watching his peers suffer at the hands of police.”
As anyone watching the news world-wide knows, many other people in Minnesota were similarly caught up. There appear to have been many people in those days looking only to exploit the chaos and disorder in the interests of personal gain or random violence. There appear also to have been many people who felt angry, frustrated, and disenfranchised, and who were attempting, in many cases in an unacceptably reckless and dangerous manner, to give voice to those feelings. Mr. Lee appears to be squarely in this latter category.
Shockingly, the prosecutors even cited Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. when commenting on the motive of Lee's crime, which, again, resulted in the death of another person.
"And even the great American advocate for non-violence and social justice, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stated in an interview with CBC’s Mike Wallace in 1966 that 'we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard,'" the prosecutors wrote.
What did Lee say?
At his sentencing, Lee apologized to Stewart's family and said he wishes he could take back his actions, but admitted he stood by his reasons for acting out violently.
"I was hoping to be another voice added to the cry for change. I wanted to be part of the solution instead of being part of the problem. Though I don’t stand by my actions, I stand by my reasons behind them," Lee said, the Post-Bulletin reported.