A Michigan man who planned to disrupt last summer's GOP convention with Molotov cocktails was sentenced Tuesday to 42 months in prison.
Before a federal judge sentenced him, Matthew Bradley DePalma said that while his heart was in the right place — he felt it important to protest eight years of a Republican presidency — his head didn't think through his actions.
"My actions ... really make me no better than the people I was opposing," the 23-year-old told U.S. District Judge John Tunheim in Minneapolis. He likened his behavior to "an angry child hitting his brother."
"How dare I step up and try to replace something I saw as wrong with something equally unenlightened?" DePalma said.
The sentence was longer than the 36 months DePalma's public defender had sought, but it was shorter than the 46 months a federal prosecutor said was appropriate. Federal sentencing guidelines called for a sentence between 46 and 57 months.
"I'm trying in this case to balance the concerns," Tunheim told DePalma. He said the offense was "very serious" and added, "In many respects, you were fortunate that you were caught."
But the judge also said DePalma was an eloquent person who had shown remorse and has "thought about these issues." The likelihood of DePalma's committing new crimes was very low, Tunheim said, and DePalma still has an opportunity to get an education and make something of himself.
"I hope you can harness the passion that you have in a positive direction," Tunheim told him.
DePalma was one of three men charged by federal prosecutors with making and possessing Molotov cocktails during the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. His case is unrelated to that of the other two — Texans David Guy McKay and Bradley Neal Crowder, both 23.
Crowder pleaded guilty and is awaiting sentencing. McKay's first trial ended in a mistrial when the jury deadlocked. His retrial is to begin Monday.
DePalma was charged with a single count of possessing an unregistered firearm, which is how federal law classifies a Molotov cocktail. He made five of the devices and planned to use them as an "equalization force" between protesters and police, he said during an October hearing at which he pleaded guilty to the charge.
He claimed he had built them for self-defense, although he didn't use that as a legal defense.
DePalma had said he had help from an unnamed government informant. While taking the blame for coming up with the idea to build the devices, he said the informant offered encouragement and drove him to get the gasoline he used in the bombs.
He and the informant detonated two of the Molotov cocktails to see if the design worked. It did. The FBI seized the other three.
DePalma grew up in Flint, Mich., once a thriving company town — the company was General Motors — but a city devastated by layoffs and economic problems. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported unemployment there was 12.3 percent in December, the last month for which data is available.
His attorney, Reynaldo "Reggie" Aligada, told Tunheim that growing up amid such economic turmoil made an impression on DePalma and that he sought to "speak out for people who don't have a voice."
"He made a wrong decision on how best to express the views that he has," Aligada conceded. "What I know that he's recognized is the mistake that he's made."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Anders Folk said that while DePalma should get some credit for accepting responsibility for the crime — and for doing it quickly, avoiding the need to disclose the identity of the government's informant — it was still a very serious crime.
"But for the FBI's proactive work ... it's easy to imagine how serious the consequences of this case could've been," the prosecutor told the judge. He said it was clear that DePalma's intention "was to hurt people and damage property."
Following the sentencing guidelines would send a message to demonstrators and others that while protesting is OK, resorting to violence is not.
"Political dissent through violence isn't dissent at all," Folk said. "It's criminal violence."
When it was his turn to speak, DePalma stood before the judge and admitted his crime.
"I was angry, and I was angry because I was afraid," he said. He went on to list the problems he saw — an unfettered presidency, wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, concerns over the Patriot Act's impact on constitutional rights and a police takeover of St. Paul's streets during the GOP convention.
"I think you'd have to be crazy not to be afraid," he said.
Still, DePalma said, the way he sought to carry out his protest was wrong.
"I was shortsighted," he said. "I guess you could say I was impatient. I can still see a better future, but it's going to take a lot of work."
After serving the 42-month sentence, DePalma will be on supervised release for three years. Tunheim said he didn't figure DePalma had any money, so he didn't fine him.
The judge also ordered him to perform 100 hours of community service during his supervised release.
"I think that might be good for you," Tunheim told him. "I encourage you to focus on the future."
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