MOIBLE, Ala. (WALA) – Tia Deyon Pugh’s outrage last year over the killing of a black man nearly 1,200 miles away prompted her to smash a police vehicle window.
That decision landed her in federal court and made her a convicted felon. But she will not go to prison.
U.S. District Judge Terry Moorer on Thursday sentenced Pugh to time served. He also declined to impose any probationary term but did order her to pay the city of Mobile $572.63, the cost of the window she broke.
Moorer said he thought the prosecution’s sentencing recommendation overstated the seriousness of Pugh’s offense. He did tell her, however, that he hopes she remains peaceful in future protests.
“Mayhem and mob violence are the wrong answers,” he said.
Prosecutors had argued for a sentence of at least a year, while defense attorney Gordon Armstrong argued that probation was the more appropriate punishment. He said his client has been “stymied” in the past year, unable to get a job and suffering mentally.
“She has been punished tremendously in many different ways,” he said.
Sean Costello, the acting U.S. attorney in Mobile, said outside the courtroom that he accepts Moorer’s judgment.
“This case was never really about how long Ms. Pugh might or might not be in prison,” he said.
Instead, he said, it was about promoting respect for the law.
“At the end of the day this case was about holding Ms. Pugh accountable for what she did, and we've done that,” he said.
Armstrong told reporters that time served was the “least possible sentence she should have gotten.” He said his client was relieved.
“It’s a great outcome for her,” he said. “The best outcome would have been a ‘not guilty’ verdict, but all things considered, we’re very happy.”
The charges arose out of a demonstration in downtown Mobile on May 31, 2000. That was just days after a Minneapolis police officer stomped on George Floyd, snuffing the life out of him. The incident, captured on video, sparked protests across the country.
The one in Mobile featured thousands of peaceful protesters demanding an end to police brutality. It also drew Pugh and others who went further, pushing against the police line separating the marchers from the on-ramp of Interstate 10.
Pugh swung a metal baseball bat, breaking the window of the police vehicle. Video of the incident became a key piece of evidence at Pugh’s trial, where a jury in May unanimously found her guilty of a little-used anti-rioting law dating to the Vietnam War era.
There was little dispute over the basic facts. In addition to the video evidence, Pugh admitted her conduct to police.
Instead, the issue was whether Pugh’s conduct amounted to a federal felony instead of the mere misdemeanor she originally was charged with in Mobile Municipal Court. Prosecutors had to prove not only that Pugh damaged police property but that in doing so, she impeded law enforcement during civil unrest.
Armstrong said the case turned to arcane matters of federal jurisdiction, such as whether the location near an interstate highway gave federal prosecutors authority to intervene. He said Pugh never denied that she acted inappropriately.
“It was wrong what she did,” he told the judge. “She’s admitted that. … This was a fight over the interstate commerce clause and terms that she doesn’t understand.”
Pugh declined to comment as she left the courthouse a free woman. During the hearing, she told Moorer that she had made a mistake.
“That’s all I wanted to say,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
Pugh already has pleaded guilty to Municipal Court charges stemming from the protest, as well as new charges she picked up less than a month after the trial that prompted a city court judge to revoke her bond. She got time served for all of those charges, we well, meaning she now is free and clear.
Moorer, meanwhile, praised the restraint of police during the protest.
“The best thing, I would say out of all this was the actions of the Mobile Police Department,” he told Mobile Public Safety Director Lawrence Battiste, who was in the courtroom during the sentencing.
Updated at 4:03 p.m. with additional comments.