The misdemeanor vandalism case against a Portland journalist who believes he was targeted after criticizing the police during a wave of Black Lives Matter protests two summers ago is scheduled to go to trial next month.
The case drew widespread attention when Christian MilNeil, the editor of Boston-based StreetsBlog MASS, tweeted on June 9, 2020, that Portland police had appeared at his home to press charges against him for reasons he suspected were related to a series of critical tweets.
Police said they were there to serve him a summons for criminal mischief for defacing a city building with graffiti. MilNeil denies the charges.
The case is now scheduled to go to trial in mid-October, more than two years after an event that helped capture the local tension between the public and police following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
MilNeil’s lawyer slammed the Cumberland County district attorney’s office for refusing to drop the charges, especially at a time when the court system is experiencing a historic backlog of cases after the coronavirus pandemic curtailed judicial operations. The number of pending court cases in Cumberland County jumped from about 3,330 to nearly 5,300 — a 59 percent increase — between January 2019 and January 2022, according to the state court system.
“At a time when the number of pending cases in Cumberland County is more than 60 percent higher than it was pre-pandemic, when there are hundreds of people languishing in our jails and waiting for their days in court, when victims are not being afforded justice as serious cases are kicked down the road, this is a case that the DA’s office somehow thinks is an appropriate use of judicial resources,” said Tina Nadeau.
The district attorney’s “animus towards critics of police has blinded them” from seeing that her client is innocent and should have never been charged in the first place, she said.
Cumberland County District Attorney Jonathan Sahrbeck declined to comment on the case ahead of the trial.
MilNeil is accused of defacing property at an affordable housing complex for which the Portland Housing Authority is partially responsible. MilNeil is a member of the authority’s board.
On June 2, 2020, security cameras apparently captured a man writing a message on a picnic table that was critical of a Portland police sergeant who shot a 22-year-old Black man in 2017, and building staff identified the man as MilNeil, according to an email a housing authority employee wrote at the time, which was eventually shared with the housing authority board.
After reviewing the footage, the employee looked up MilNeil’s Twitter account and saw that he had tweeted “very similar statements” to the graffiti. The message on the table was one of three similar messages written on the building’s property.
“The notion that I would vandalize a building that I was a big advocate for is absurd,” MilNeil previously told the Bangor Daily News.
When uniformed officers showed up at his house to charge him, MilNeil said he believed the police suspected him because in the days prior, he tweeted about the police sergeant in question, as well as about a Maine town that he said had defunded its police department.
“One cop told my wife ‘I know about your preconceived notions of police – I know them for a fact,’” MilNeil tweeted at the time.