South Carolina judge upholds activist’s 4-year prison term

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A pregnant Black activist serving four years in prison over comments she made to police during racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 will not receive a lesser sentence, a judge in South Carolina has ruled.

A jury this spring found Brittany Martin, 34, of Sumter, South Carolina, guilty of breaching the peace in a high and aggravated manner. Martin’s attorneys pushed for the sentence to be reconsidered and expressed concern about her pregnancy and health. Racial justice groups also got involved.

In an Oct. 5 order, Judge R. Kirk Griffin pointed to Martin’s prior criminal convictions that he said contributed to her original sentence.

In November 2020, an Iowa judge sentenced Martin to probation for leaving the scene of an injury and willfully causing bodily harm after her teenage son accused her of purposely hitting him with her SUV and driving away. Griffin also noted previous convictions across multiple states for shoplifting, public disorderly conduct and possession of a short-barreled shotgun.

Sumter County Assistant Solicitor Bronwyn McElveen said in a September filing that Martin has been on probation at least six times.

“Probation has not been a deterrent to further criminal activities for the Defendant,” Griffin wrote in his order. “An active prison sentence was appropriate in this instance.”

Breach of the peace is a misdemeanor charge in South Carolina punishable by up to 10 years imprisonment when elevated to a “high and aggravated manner.”

Police body camera recordings presented in court and shared with the Associated Press show Martin addressing police officers during multiple days of demonstrations.

“Some of us gon’ be hurting. And some of y’all gon’ be hurting,” Martin told officers in one video. “We ready to die for this. We tired of it. You better be ready to die for the blue. I’m ready to die for the Black.”

McElveen also said in the filing that Martin’s actions prompted the city to impose a curfew and a local business lost profits because it had to close early.

The jury in May acquitted Martin of inciting a riot and reached no verdict on pending charges that she threatened public officials’ lives.

Martin’s lawyers argued that the sentence was inconsistent with similar cases in South Carolina and stiff compared to those doled out for Jan. 6 rioters. In a Wednesday statement, Bakari Sellers, her attorney and a former state lawmaker, said four years is “excessive” and that he intends to appeal.

Griffin said it was difficult to compare federal convictions from the Jan. 6 riots and the specifics of the case.

“The sentence in this case was based on the crime committed, the nature and classification of the offense, the Defendant’s prior criminal history/recidivism, and the seriousness of the crime,” Griffin wrote.

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James Pollard is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.

Copyright © 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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