Lancaster County Judge Merrill Spahn sentenced a Lancaster woman to 13 months to 30 months in state prison on Tuesday for her role in the demonstrations that turned violent in front of the Lancaster police station three years ago.
Jessica Lopez, 34, was among 12 adults arrested in the wake of the unrest, which took place overnight on Sept. 13, 2020, after a police officer shot and killed Ricardo Munoz earlier that day outside his home on Laurel Street. Munoz, who had severe mental health issues, charged the officer with a knife; District Attorney Heather Adams ruled the shooting justified.
During subsequent protests that night, a portion of the crowd ignored police orders to clear the access ramp adjacent to the police station, leading officers to deploy chemical agents. Individuals threw water bottles and debris at officers, burned a county detective vehicle and broke windows.
Lopez was one of three individuals sentenced Tuesday. Alexa Wise, 31, of Camp Hill, and Taylor Enterline, 23, of Manheim, both were sentenced to three years of probation and 125 hours of community service. They were convicted in January of riot, failure to disperse, obstructing highways, and defiant trespass.
“While the right to peacefully protest is protected by our constitution, peaceful protesting has never included violence and chaos,” Judge Spahn said. His comments were included in the district attorney’s office’s summary of the hearing.
Prosecutors argued that Lopez, 34, was a principal actor in escalating the unrest and egging on others, presenting recorded evidence of her strategizing with another individual and telling the crowd to send their children home.
In November, following a three-day trial, Lopez was convicted of two felonies, riot and criminal conspiracy; and four misdemeanors: failure to disperse, disorderly conduct, obstruction of highways, and defiant trespass. The jury deliberated about 30 minutes before reaching a verdict.
At Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, multiple character witnesses testified on Lopez’ behalf, including state Rep. Ismail Smith-Wade-El, D-Lancaster. They told the court she has a deep passion for social justice and compassion for the downtrodden.
Spahn acknowledged their statements but said Lopez’ prior record had to factor into her sentencing, calling it something the court “cannot and will not overlook.” He said his sentence was based only on Lopez’ actions and record, not her political and social views.
Lopez has a federal conviction for drug dealing as well as two felony aggravated assault convictions for attacking city police officers in 2008. Sentencing guidelines for someone with her record call for at least nine to 16 months in prison, the district attorney’s office said.
First Deputy District Attorney Cody Wade, who prosecuted Lopez, requested a sentence on the high end of the range. He said Lopez has not admitted culpability, instead portraying herself as the victim of political prosecution.
Her defense attorney, Christopher Patterson, said Lopez didn’t damage anything or tell anyone to do so. He told LNP he plans to appeal for a more lenient sentence.
Advocates state their case
In a press conference after the hearing, Smith-Wade-El and other supporters said Lopez and the movement of which she was a part have been unfairly portrayed and unfairly treated.
Smith-Wade-El said Lopez is a single mother who, despite a rough upbringing and decades of trauma, “never stopped helping other people,” and will keep doing so when she returns to Lancaster.
Michelle Batt, founder of the Lancaster Bail Fund, contrasted the $1 million bail initially set for several protesters, though subsequently lowered, with the treatment accorded John Burkhart, the former head of the Lancaster County Drug Task Force, who was allowed to turn himself in when he was charged with stealing drug forfeiture funds — about $170,000, prosecutors say. He is awaiting sentence after pleading guilty in March.
Sophie Xiong recited a defiant poem written by Lopez following her conviction. “They control the narrative, the justice and lifelines / And they tried to cut off my water, but through the concrete, I’ll thrive. / There will be no burying me this time,” it read in part.
Batt and Smith-Wade-El said that complaints about the time, place and manner of social justice protests ring hollow, given the magnitude of the issues at stake and the difficulty of achieving reforms through accepted channels. Batt said she’s tried but “the doors have been closed.”
“As someone who has yet to find a way to un-Black himself, I deeply appreciate that there are people who want to stand up for racial justice in this community and in our country,” Smith-Wade-El said.
Other cases resolved
Lopez, Wise and Enterline were the last three individuals to be sentenced in connection with the Sept. 13, 2020, unrest. The other nine cases, adjudicated since early 2022, are as follows, according to the district attorney’s office:
- Kathryn Patterson: Pleaded guilty to failure to disperse, disorderly conduct, defiant trespass, and obstruction of highways; sentenced to 18 months of probation and 100 hours of community service.
- Dylan Davis: Found guilty in a bench trial of riot, criminal conspiracy, failure to disperse, obstruction of highways, disorderly conduct, and dangerous burning; sentenced to three years’ probation.
- T-Jay Fry: Pleaded guilty to failure to disperse and defiant trespass; ordered to pay fines and costs.
- Barry Jones III: Found guilty of failure to disperse; sentenced to time served to 12 months plus 25 hours of community service.
- Talia Gessner: Pleaded guilty to riot, criminal conspiracy, failure to disperse, obstruction of highways, disorderly conduct, defiant trespass, and dangerous burning; sentenced to time served to 23 months in prison.
- Christopher Vazquez: Pleaded guilty to riot, reckless burning, disorderly conduct, institutional vandalism and failure to disperse; sentenced to 52 months to nine years in prison.
- Jamal Newman Jr.: Pleaded guilty to riot, criminal conspiracy, failure to disperse, obstruction of highways, disorderly conduct, loitering and prowling at nighttime, defiant trespass, and dangerous burning; sentenced to time served to 23 months in prison plus two years’ probation.
- Yoshua Montague: Pleaded guilty to carrying firearms without a license, riot, criminal conspiracy, failure to disperse, obstruction of highways, disorderly conduct, and dangerous burning; sentenced to 45 days to 23 months in prison plus three years’ probation.
- Matthew Modderman: Pleaded no contest to summary disorderly conduct; fined $300.