A man accused of setting fire to a northwestern Pennsylvania coffee shop during 2020 demonstrations following the death of George Floyd has pleaded guilty to a federal charge of malicious destruction of property by fire.
Melquan Barnett, 30, entered the plea Wednesday as part of a deal with prosecutors that calls for them to recommend no more than a five-year federal prison term when he is sentenced May 2, the Erie Times-News reported.
The FBI accused Barnett of lighting fire to “an ignitable liquid” tossed onto a countertop at Ember + Forge in Erie shortly after May 2020 protests were followed by rioting. The front window of the shop had already been broken. Apartments above the shop were occupied at the time but no one was injured.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Christian Trabold said in court Wednesday that city and federal investigators identified Barnett through surveillance video and video posted on social media.
Defense attorney Charles Sunwabe, who declined comment after the hearing, had unsuccessfully challenged the filing of federal charges in the case. Barnett, who is Black, argued that his race unfairly contributed to that decision and also said he was engaged in free speech during the civil unrest.
A judge dismissed all of Barnett’s contentions in November 2021, saying there was no evidence of bias in the decision to prosecute him in federal court and that acts of violence do not have constitutional protection. FBI officials said the federal arson charge was warranted because the business engages in interstate commerce.