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How A Black Lives Matter Activist Was Sentenced To 90 Days For 'Lynching'

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Black Lives Matter activist Jasmine Richards was sentenced Tuesday to 90 days in jail after her conviction last week of an act long known in California as felony "lynching."The charge carries a maximum sentence of four years imprisonment. The fact that Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elaine Lu gave the Pasadena activist a much lighter sentence is a victory, according to Richards' lawyer Nana Gyamfi. But justice would have meant no jail time at all, the attorney said.

"She was persecuted and jailed because of her political beliefs," said Gyamfi, who plans to file an appeal.

Richards, 28, was charged with felony attempted lynching last August for intervening when Pasadena Police arrested a woman during a rally at a park. The woman walked into the park after reportedly dining at a restaurant after a payment dispute and punching a restaurant worker. Richards thought police had detained the woman unlawfully and tried to help her, Gyamfi said.

Part of the incident was captured on video. At one point, police say Richards stood in front of a police car and prevented the car from leaving with the arrested woman. She then called out to a group to circle the police car. Officers then cleared a path, ultimately allowing the car to leave, according to the Pasadena Star-News.

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The light sentence Richards received for the controversial offense is bittersweet for Melina Abdullah, a professor of Pan-African Studies at Cal State Los Angeles and a Black Lives Matter Los Angeles organizer. She also serves as a mentor to Richards, who has unofficially taken Abdullah's last name.

"We know that we got [90 days] because we pressured them," Abdullah said. "It's not a horrible travesty, as it could have been, but I thought today she was going home."

Gyamfi expects her client to serve about a month in the county jail. Richards will receive 18 days credit for time served and three years of probation. Gyamfi maintained that the activist's behavior in the park was not lynching in any sense.

The charge baffled many, including Questlove of The Roots:

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What Is 'Lynching'?

Lynching laws historically applied to the mobs that took suspects out of police custody to hang them. These vigilantes notoriously targeted African Americans and Latinos, which is why Richards' supporters are outraged that she, a black woman, faced such a charge.

Since 1933, the California penal code defined lynching as "the taking by means of a riot of any person from the lawful custody of any peace officer." But last year, the California Legislature passed a bill to remove the word lynching from the code to avoid confusion over its statutory meaning.

The bill, sponsored by Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson, took effect in January. So, while the words "felony lynching" appeared on the police report for Richards' arrest, the jurors never heard that term during the trial.

Ultimately, the jury convicted Richards of "attempting to take a person from the lawful custody of police, which has to be done by means of a riot," Gyamfi said.

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Two lawyers unaffiliated with the case, Isabelle Gunning and John Raphling, said that it's uncommon for protesters to be charged with lynching. Gunning, a professor at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles, said that protesters are typically charged with misdemeanors in such circumstances and that lynching laws have historically been used to protect blacks.

"That is my understanding of the law—that you would want to make it specific to trying to prevent lynching," she said.

Raphling, a criminal defense attorney in Venice, has represented a wide range of protesters, including Occupy Wall Street, immigration and environmental activists. He said that occasionally protesters face lynching charges, but they're more commonly charged with resisting, obstructing or delaying a police officer.

"The lynching charge is the more serious charge, which isn't reduce-able," he said. "You would expect to see fairly serious conduct as opposed to a misdemeanor, and so [Richards supporters] have a point that this was a political decision to charge the more serious charge."

Last year, a Sacramento Black Lives Matter activist was charged with felony lynching (that charge was later dropped). In 2014, immigration activists in Murrieta were charged with lynching also. These protesters were not convicted of the crime, however.

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Richards' conviction has led celebrities, like Questlove and Jesse Williams of Grey's Anatomy to speak out on Twitter. Orange Is The New Black's Matt McGorry showed up to protest:

The civil rights group ColorofChange.org collected 85,368 signatures from people demanding that Richards receive no jail time. The founders of Black Lives Matter have rallied around Richards as well.

Was Richards A Target?

Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors was among the few hundred protesters who stood outside of the Pasadena Courthouse after the sentencing. She considers Richards to be a political prisoner.

According to Cullors, Richards became a police target when she began protesting on behalf of Kendrec McDade, a 19-year-old killed by Pasadena Police in 2012 after a 9-1-1 caller falsely accused him of being armed.

"There were vans sitting outside of Jasmine's house, police showing up to her mom's house," she said. "She would go into stores and police would be there and say her name, 'Hey, Jasmine.' Many of us have experienced that. It's not a secret that Black Lives Matter activists are being surveilled."

Pasadena Police could not be reached for comment about Cullors' allegations before press time. But in September, a spokeswoman for the department Lt. Tracey Ibarra told the Star-News, "Our arrests are not targeted. They’re based on criminal acts committed by Jasmine Richards, and we intend to pursue charges with the district attorney’s office."

As recently as January 2015, Richards' activism was still evolving. When Black Lives Matter gathered then to meet with Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, Richards described herself to LAist as not an "activist" or an "organizer" but essentially a concerned citizen.

"Why do we have to chant 'black lives matter'?" she asked. "And when we chant it, why does everybody say 'all lives matter?' We know that. We know everybody else's life matters. But when can we get some justice for our lives?"

She would be charged with lynching seven months later.

Los Angeles Thrust into National Spotlight

Although controversial police killings have occurred in Los Angeles County, the region has not recently been the focus of national discussions on police violence. That distinction has instead gone to places such as Baltimore, New York, Cleveland, Chicago and Ferguson, Missouri. But outside of the Pasadena Courthouse Tuesday, protesters chanted the names of several locals killed by police or in police custody, including Ezell Ford, Redel Jones and Wakiesha Wilson.

The Los Angeles Police Commission found that the amount of people shot by police had doubled from 2014 to 2015. And from 2010 to 2014, one in four people shot by police was unarmed, according to KPCC's homicide report. Meanwhile, sixteen years have passed since a police officer in L.A. County was charged for shooting a civilian.

Gyamfi said local media simply don't give police killings the same coverage they might receive elsewhere. Cullors had a different take.

"L.A. has had its '92 uprising. It has had its scandals, so in a lot of ways, it's being painted as a reformed city, a city that has one of the best police commissions," she said. "In reality, L.A. is still dealing with the evils of '92. We act as if those officers were fired. We act as if the culture was completely changed. No it wasn't, and we see it over and over again in these cases. What's really happening is L.A. has to remind the country why we've been fighting for decades now for police reform."

Black Lives Matter activists are especially critical of L.A.'s top cop, Jackie Lacey, who in 2012 became the first African American and the first woman to serve as district attorney.

Abdullah told the crowd outside of the courthouse not to vote for her Tuesday.

"Lacey shouldn't be running unopposed," she said. "Write in 'not Jackie Lacey.'"

Cullors said that Lacey hasn't spoken out against police killings or prosecuted the officers involved in them.

"Jackie Lacey has been a big disappointment to the black community," Cullors said. "I'm not sure a D.A. can do a good job for the black community, but what I will say is that she ran on the progressive ticket. She's failed us, and so, yes, we have to hold her accountable. She's an elected official."

In March, voters did not reelect Anita Alvarez, state's attorney for Cook County, Illinois, or Ohio's Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim Ginty. Both were accused of siding with law enforcement over civilians killed by police.

Richards' supporters not only plan to hold lawmakers accountable for police treatment of civilians but also to win her appeal.

"We do not want Jasmine Abdullah to have a felony on her record for this act of love that she engaged in," Gyamfi said. "It was clear that her intention was to love and protect and not to fight officers and to engage in unlawful conduct, and so given that, we felt that she should not have any additional jail time."