We previously discussed how prosecutors in North Carolina, Georgia, Oregon, and other states have dismissed or downgraded many rioting cases, including cases of individuals who destroyed statues in broad daylight. Now, New Mexico District Attorney Mary Carmack-Altwies has announced that all of the individuals who destroyed a 152-year-old obelisk last October will be given “restorative justice” and no jail time. They will however be required to write a letter about their actions. Carmack-Altwies called the premeditated act of destruction of the obelisk a mere “political problem that got forced upon the criminal justice system.”
The statement of Carmack-Altwies is reminiscent of Speaker Nancy Pelosi shrugging off the destruction in her own home city of statues with “people will do what they do.”
The obelisk was erected in 1866 to honor Civil War-era soldiers who died in battle. The North-facing Panel #4 however read: “TO THE HEROES WHO HAVE FALLEN IN THE VARIOUS BATTLES WITH SAVAGE INDIANS IN THE TERRITORY OF NEW MEXICO.” The “savage” reference was removed in the 1970s. It was a National Landmark.
The seven defendants destroyed the obelisk in broad daylight and showed little concern for arrest or prosecution. It turns out they had reason to be so self-assured. They will be given six months to two years probation and perform 40 hours of community service. They will also be required to write a letter admitting their role in toppling the obelisk.
The seven defendants were charged with felony counts of damaging property worth over $1,000.
I actually do not want to see these defendants given any serious jail time. In that sense, I agree with Carmack-Altwies that any sentence should be large probationary. However, my objection is the statement that this is just a “political problem.” Would Carmack-Altwies have taken such a view if the statue involved a different symbol or figure? The concern is that prosecutors identify with some of these protesters or their causes. Short jail stints, even for a few months, can offer some deterrence and, more importantly, establish that this criminal conduct will not be tolerated. Even without such jail time, it was important for Carmack-Altwies to establish the clear criminality of such actions. Instead, she dismissed the conduct as political rather than criminal.
There is an important national debate to have over such controversial public art. However, we are not having that debate. Mobs been allowed to dictate what public art will remain and what will be torn down. The message being sent is that you can skip any effort to try to convince other citizens to remove public art and just destroy such pieces unilaterally. The question is how Carmack-Altwies will punish the next wave of rioters for such destruction when she has already declared such premeditated acts as a “political problem that got forced upon the criminal justice system.”