Two women who were among five defendants accused of firebombing a police car and damaging public property in 2020 in Little Rock during Black Lives Matter demonstrations protesting the police killing of George Floyd pleaded guilty Monday in federal court in back-to-back hearings to charges related to those protests.
Renea Goddard, 24, who is living in Chicago, pleaded guilty to a superseding information charging her with conspiracy to possess an unregistered destructive device. Emily Nowlin, 29, of Little Rock, pleaded guilty to possession of an unregistered destructive device.
Both were charged in connection with the Aug. 28, 2020 firebombing of an Arkansas State Police vehicle. After accepting their guilty pleas, Chief U.S. District Judge D. Price Marshall Jr. allowed both to remain free on bond until sentencing. Nowlin faces a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine. Goddard faces a sentence of up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
Accompanied by attorney Adam Childers of North Little Rock, Nowlin listened as Marshall ran down her options and explained the rights she would surrender by pleading guilty.
Nowlin was charged with four counts in the 13-count indictment, including conspiracy to maliciously damage and destroy a vehicle by means of fire, malicious damage and destruction of a vehicle by means of fire, possession of a destructive device in furtherance of a crime of violence, and possession of an unregistered destructive device. Under the terms of her plea agreement, she pleaded guilty to the possession count, which was listed as Count 9 in the superseding indictment.
"If you plead guilty I will convict you on Count 9," Marshall said. "There's no jury, you give up that right. You give up the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. You give up the right to cross-examine the evidence, to have it brought into court to be confronted with it, and you give up the right to the court's help in putting on a defense."
Marshall also explained the appeal rights being surrendered by a guilty plea.
"There are a couple of exceptions but in general you are stuck with whatever I do," he said.
According to a summary of facts provided by Assistant U.S. Attorney Stacy Williams in Nowlin's and Goddard's hearings, the two women went first to the home of co-defendant Brittany "Dawn" Jeffrey, then joined co-defendants Mujera Benjamin Lung'aho and Aline Espinosa-Villegas at Lung'aho's home Aug. 27, 2020, where the group decided to throw a Molotov cocktail at the Arkansas State Police headquarters in Southwest Little Rock.
While at Lung'aho's home, Williams said, Goddard made stencils to be used in spraying patrol vehicles and Lung'aho filled a liquor bottle with gasoline from his garage to make the Molotov cocktail. Early in the morning of Aug. 28, 2020, Williams said, an unindicted co-conspirator drove Lung'aho, Espinosa, Nowlin and Goddard to State Police headquarters, where Lung'aho cut a section of chain link fence to gain entry.
While on the property, Williams said, Lung'aho, Espinosa, Nowlin and Goddard vandalized several vehicles and Espinosa threw the Molotov cocktail, which Williams said failed to explode. She said Lung'aho then threw the device at a 2020 Chevrolet Tahoe marked patrol unit, which set the Tahoe on fire and resulted in destruction of the vehicle.
During Nowlin's hearing, Marshall seemed troubled by Williams' contention that Nowlin had possessed the Molotov cocktail despite no claim that she had actually handled the device. Williams said the presence of the device in a backpack that was in the vehicle as they were driven to the State Police headquarters was sufficient to establish possession by all four defendants.
"I believe all co-conspirators involved in this jointly and constructively possessed the ... Molotov cocktail," Williams said. "As they go out of the vehicle, I believe it was in a backpack, they cut the fence, walked through the fence, all of them together, into the State Police parking lot and two of them threw the Molotov cocktail."
"Is the backpack handed around the vehicle?" Marshall asked. "Is the backpack in a place where any one of them could have grabbed it?"
"I don't know to that specificity at this point," Williams replied, "however ... I believe it would be clear to the jury that they each, jointly and constructively, possessed the firearm."
"If you're in the front seat with the backpack," Marshall countered, "and I'm in the back seat behind the driver -- you're riding shotgun -- I understand we're in the same vehicle together ... but unless I said to you, 'Hey, give me the backpack, I want to see the thing, the firearm,' and you willingly hand it over to me and I can exercise dominion and control over it and I could keep it, those are the kinds of facts that show constructive, joint possession."
"If each of them had the intent to go there and throw a Molotov cocktail then I believe any of them who wanted to, could have done it," Williams said. "They all had the intent."
Satisfied, Marshall accepted Nowlin's guilty plea and dismissed the remaining charges against her.
"You stand convicted of the one charge but everything else is gone," he told her.
Goddard, who was set to plead last month but asked for more time to consider her plea, appeared in court with attorney Dominique King, who recently moved to Dallas and is working to wrap up her practice in Arkansas. Goddard is living in Chicago and is under the supervision of the Northern District of Illinois.
Goddard waived indictment and pleaded guilty to a superseding information charging her with conspiracy to possess an unregistered destructive device. She is charged with the same conduct as Nowlin although the charge itself is different. She pleaded guilty in exchange for dismissal of the indictment against her.
"Did you work with these other people in agreeing to make the Molotov cocktail?" Marshall asked her. "Did you travel by car to the State Police headquarters? Did you use the Molotov cocktail to damage a car?"
Goddard answered yes to all of Marshall's questions.
"Is this what you want to do?" he asked. "Make the deal and move on?"
"Yes," Goddard answered.
Espinosa and Jeffrey pleaded guilty in the case and are awaiting sentencing. Lung'aho is scheduled to go to trial Oct. 24.