Feds ahead of sentencing: No evidence of hate crime in Schenectady Molotov cocktail attack; Came after protests

Jahonna Chaires’ Acura SUV and its interior after it was firebombed near Jerry Burrell Park in Schenectady following a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest June 5, 2020.
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Jahonna Chaires’ Acura SUV and its interior after it was firebombed near Jerry Burrell Park in Schenectady following a peaceful Black Lives Matter protest June 5, 2020.

ALBANY – Federal prosecutors have no evidence that a June Molotov cocktail attack was a hate crime, an attack that took place the morning after Schenectady protests related to the death of George Floyd, they wrote ahead of the perpetrator’s sentencing this week.

However, prosecutors also noted that Joel Malek has given no explanation as to why he committed the car bombing, and, in the pre-sentence investigation report, he did not deny the offense had anything to do with the victim’s race, gender or ethnicity, prosecutors wrote.

Regardless, prosecutors also argued that the timing should be taken into account when determining Malek’s final sentence, adding to “the significant impact that the defendant’s offense had on the community.”

Joel Malek, 43, pleaded guilty in June to one count of possession of a destructive device. He faces up to 10 years in federal prison at his sentencing, now set for this Friday in Syracuse.

Federal prosecutors are asking Malek be sentenced to upwards of 7 years, 3 months. Malek’s defense is asking for a sentence of as little as just under 6 years.

Malek admitted in June to using the improvised incendiary device June 5, 2020 to set fire to the vehicle of a woman identified in the plea agreement as J.C. The vehicle was parked at the corner of Paige and Hamilton streets.

Malek and another unidentified conspirator approached the vehicle and the other conspirator broke a driver’s side window with a hammer and ran away, according to Malek’s plea agreement.

Malek then approached the vehicle holding the Molotov cocktail, ignited it and threw it into the vehicle through the broken window, starting the vehicle on fire, court documents say. The device was made from a champagne bottle.

The victim, Jahonna Chaires, who spoke to The Daily Gazette days after the incident, said the explosion came after she attempted to break up a dispute at a Schenectady George Floyd rally.

No one was hurt, but the act caused a significant risk of life, prosecutor Alexander P. Wentworth-Ping wrote. The vehicle was also destroyed.

In arguing for the stiffer sentence, Wentworth-Ping noted the incident took place on a public roadway, near a public park and playground, and that the crime required careful planning and premeditation.

Surveillance cameras caught Malek and the co-conspirator parking four blocks from the scene, then walking through the park to the victim’s vehicle, while Malek carried the already-assembled device secreted in a plastic bag, Wentworth-Ping wrote.

They then fled the scene on foot back to their getaway vehicle, Wentworth-Ping wrote. Soon confronted by police, Malek then lied about his involvement.

“This was not an impulsive heat-of-the-moment crime,” Wentworth-Ping wrote. “The defendant planned it with at least one other conspirator, and then attempted to deny any involvement.”

Related to the protests, Wentworth-Ping noted that Malek’s girlfriend told probation Malek did not know the owner of the car and called the offense “pure stupidity.”

However, “the nature and circumstances of the crime — in the early morning hours on the day after racially-based protests in Schenectady — should play a role in determining the severity of the offense, given that the offense could rationally have been interpreted at the time as motivated by racial animus, thereby potentially stifling free speech and association, and adds to the significant impact that the defendant’s offense had on the community.”

Prosecutors also cited a “long criminal history” involving assault, burglary, weapons and other crimes, that has led to him being incarcerated more than 15 years of his life.

Malek defense attorney Michael P. McGeown-Walker argued for the lighter sentence, arguing a history of drug use and addiction, and that the conduct was “not sophisticated and very likely to lead to Mr. Malek’s apprehension.”

He argued the device used was simple and the thick bottle used did not even break, leaving DNA behind for law enforcement to find, McGeown-Walker wrote. Malek even used two vehicles easily traced to him and he drove through a city laden with traffic cameras. At least one camera caught Malek’s face.

More specifically, McGeown-Walker noted nothing connected Malek to the protest, including related to the victim. She did not identify Malek as the person she had an verbal altercation with at the protest.

“While Mr. Malek has chosen not to discuss the driving force behind his conduct, which is his right, he should not be labeled as acting under some kind of animus (racial or otherwise) toward the victim,” McGeown-Walker wrote, including the information added in parenthesis. “He has admitted to the factual basis of this case. He has taken responsibility. The fact that he chooses not to elaborate further on the incident should not be held against him.”

To The Daily Gazette after the incident, Chaires described watching a white man described by witnesses as an “agitator” come close to getting beaten, she then stepped in to intervene — not only to maintain neighborhood peace but also for his safety.

Chaires, who is Black, awoke the next morning to a smoldering vehicle.

The busted-out back window of her 2005 Acura MDX, she said then, revealed the charred remains of a Molotov cocktail and a hammer Chaires believed was used to break the window.

The clash followed a peaceful protest that in which demonstrators marched from the Schenectady County Jail and up Albany Street to Brandywine Avenue before marchers turned around and headed back toward Jerry Burrell Park, in the city’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood.

The marchers splintered off and continued to share personal stories of police encounters and racism, and inequalities that have come to a head following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer last year.

Malek has remained in custody since his Oct. 6, 2020 arrest. Though he faces up to 10 years in the case, he gave up any right to appeal a sentence of 7 years, 3 months or less.

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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