On a May night in 2020, two young lawyers — high achievers who had risen from working-class roots to prestigious schools and promising careers — joined thousands of others on the streets of Brooklyn to protest the murder of George Floyd.
What happened next stunned many of their friends: The lawyers, Urooj Rahman and Colinford Mattis, were arrested in an attack using a Molotov cocktail on an empty police car. Federal prosecutors brought stiff charges against them: seven counts, including arson and civil disorder, which collectively could have carried a 45-year minimum sentence. They also argued that the lawyers were dangers to society.
On Wednesday, Ms. Rahman, 32, and Mr. Mattis, 34, pleaded guilty in federal court in Brooklyn to one count apiece of possession of a destructive device, as part of a deal worked out between their lawyers and federal prosecutors in Brooklyn.
They could face up to 10 years in prison when they are sentenced on Feb. 8, though the judge, Brian Cogan, said that the date might change. A lawyer for Ms. Rahman, Paul Shechtman, said negotiations over the applicable sentencing range were still underway. One sticking point is that prosecutors have indicated that they would seek a so-called terrorism enhancement, which has typically been applied in cases related to mass destruction and which can extend a prison stay by decades.
The plea is the resolution of a case that had served as an example of the Trump Justice Department’s crackdown on hundreds of protesters in the wake of the civil unrest and national demonstrations spurred by Mr. Floyd’s death and by broader outrage over police brutality.
At the hearing on Wednesday in federal court in Brooklyn, a prosecutor, Ian Richardson, argued that sentencing guidelines would compel the judge to sentence Ms. Rahman and Mr. Mattis to 10 years in prison because of the terrorism enhancement.
Judge Cogan acknowledged that the terrorism enhancement was at issue, but said that he had “no idea where I’m coming out on that.” He also said that Ms. Rahman and Mr. Mattis had agreed not to appeal any sentence of five years or less.
Ms. Rahman and Mr. Mattis then entered their pleas, and expressed regret for their actions. Mr. Mattis added that he wished “I had made better choices on that night.”
On May 29, 2020, Ms. Rahman (then a lawyer at Bronx Legal Services) and her friend Mr. Mattis (who had recently been furloughed from his job as an associate at the law firm Pryor Cashman) took part in protests over Mr. Floyd’s death.
Shortly after midnight, according to prosecutors’ court filings, they drove a tan minivan to a police precinct in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Citing video surveillance, prosecutors said Ms. Rahman got out of the van, walked toward an empty police patrol car and threw a Molotov cocktail through its broken window before fleeing the scene.
They were arrested on May 30 and held in jail for more than two days before a federal magistrate judge released them to home confinement. Prosecutors appealed twice to keep them behind bars, saying that the pair had tried to incite others to carry out similar attacks and that “they could not be trusted to refrain” from similar behavior.
More than 50 former federal prosecutors signed a public letter urging the appeals court to reject the U.S. attorney’s office’s argument for detention, saying it contradicted settled bail law.
Mr. Mattis and Ms. Rahman were ultimately released pending trial.
After their arrests, investigators scoured their social media accounts and looked for evidence of ties to violent groups, The Times reported last year.
On Wednesday, Mr. Richardson read messages between Ms. Rahman and Mr. Mattis in which they promoted attacks on government buildings, including the headquarters of the New York Police Department in Manhattan, and arranged to meet near Fort Greene Park in Brooklyn.
He cited a video interview that Ms. Rahman gave to an independent journalist that night, saying, “This has got to stop and the only way they hear us is through violence.”
Judge Cogan then scolded Mr. Richardson, saying those details were best left for the sentencing.
Mr. Mattis grew up in East New York, attended a prestigious Delaware boarding school and then Princeton and New York University School of Law. In the year before his arrest, his mother had died of cancer, and he had taken on the three children, all under the age of 11, she had been fostering.
Ms. Rahman was born in Pakistan and grew up in Bay Ridge; she attended a selective Brooklyn public school and Fordham University for college and law school.