A Philadelphia woman charged with torching police cars during the 2020 racial injustice protests in Philadelphia has struck an agreement with federal prosecutors that will spare her the seven-year minimum sentence she would have faced had she been convicted on arson charges.
Lore-Elisabeth Blumenthal, 35, pleaded guilty Wednesday to two counts of a lesser offense — obstructing law enforcement during a civil disorder — each of which carries a maximum sentence of five years in prison.
Her attorney Paul J. Hetznecker called the deal “appropriate” after condemning the previous arson charges — and the harsh sentence they carried — as a ”political decision” and an overreaction to crimes he argued should have been pursued in state court.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to say whether the deal signaled a wider reevaluation of its stance on protest-related cases. In all, five other defendants are still facing federal arson counts in Philadelphia for setting squad cars ablaze during the heated protests that erupted May 30, 2020, outside City Hall after the police killing of George Floyd.
At the time of the arrests, Attorney General William Barr had urged federal prosecutors across the country to pursue stiff federal penalties against defendants who committed violence and property destruction during the unrest that roiled the country that spring.
Blumenthal’s case became a cause célèbre on both sides of the debate surrounding protests and policing.
Prosecutors described her as a danger to the community who put hundreds of lives at risk by setting fire to cars that could have exploded and endangered packed crowds of peaceful protesters nearby. Left-wing groups labeled her a “political prisoner” jailed for an act of dissent in response to police brutality. They vandalized the Federal Detention Center in Center City, where Blumenthal has been incarcerated since her arrest, calling for her release.
But Blumenthal — a massage therapist with a peace sign tattooed on her wrist — appeared to fit neither the profile of the violent firebrand nor the political martyr that she’s been made out to be as she stood meekly in court Wednesday before U.S. District Judge Barclay Surrick.
Hands clasped behind her back, she spoke slowly and deliberately as the judge ran her through a series of questions to make sure she understood the consequences of her guilty plea. She paused to shout “I love you” to her brother and mother seated in the courtroom gallery, as U.S. Marshals led her back to prison.
Federal agents have said they identified Blumenthal from surveillance photos and video of the chaotic scene that unfolded outside City Hall that day.
They showed a woman, dressed in a blue shirt and wearing flame-retardant gloves, grabbing a burning piece of police barricade that had already been used to set one squad car on fire and tossing it into a police SUV parked nearby.
More photos taken by amateur photographers at the scene helped them zoom in on the woman’s distinctive peace-sign tattoo and T-shirt she was wearing with the slogan “Keep the immigrants, deport the racists.”
Agents later located that shirt for sale on Etsy, the online marketplace for crafters, and traced a recent purchase back to an account linked to Blumenthal by following a trail across her various social media accounts.
At the time of her arrest, civil rights advocates worried the heavy monitoring of Blumenthal’s internet traffic signaled a broader use of federal law enforcement power to surveil the social media networks demonstrators were using to organize their dissent.
Since then, the FBI has used similar tactics — trawling photos and video shared on the internet — to charge more than 760 people in connection with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.
Hetznecker said he believed the charging decisions made in the Capitol attack prompted the Justice Department to reexamine the cases they filed against demonstrators from the May 2020 protests.
“The decision by the federal government to dismiss the indictment and allow my client to plead guilty to a lesser charge was not made in a vacuum, just as the decision to bring the arson charges back in 2020 was not made in a vacuum,” he said, calling the latter choice “a blatant effort by the Trump administration to demonize the most important civil rights movement in a generation.”
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined to comment Wednesday on whether plea deals similar to Blumenthal’s had been offered to any of the five other defendants facing similar charges.
As part of her plea deal, Blumenthal has agreed to pay more than $92,000 in restitution for the damage she caused. She is scheduled for sentencing in June.