New York (CNN)On an early October evening in 2014, a group of New York University law school students gathered for a joint birthday party at (Le) Poisson Rouge, a popular bar and music venue a few blocks from campus.
How two promising lawyers found themselves facing life in prison for alleged Molotov cocktail attack during protests in NY
One of the birthday celebrants, Colinford Mattis, quickly hit it off with another guest, Urooj Rahman, who was studying law at Fordham. Both raised in Brooklyn, the two bonded over their professional interest in human rights and their engagement in local politics, becoming friends from there on.
Today, Mattis, 32, and Rahman, 31, are in jail, facing federal charges alleging they participated in a Molotov cocktail attack on an empty New York Police Department vehicle during protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The promising young lawyers with enviable educational pedigrees and significant familial responsibilities -- he is raising three foster children; she is the primary caretaker for her elderly mother -- suddenly find themselves detainees indicted on seven federal felony charges for which they face life in prison. Their predicament has puzzled not only family and friends, but also prosecutors themselves.
"He's a person with an extraordinary career that was just starting in the law. He attended prestigious universities, he had some of the best education that you can have in this country and yet he risked everything -- everything -- to drive around in a car with Molotov cocktails attacking police vehicles," federal prosecutor Ian Richardson said during one of Mattis's initial court appearances.
"It is difficult for me, frankly," Richardson later added, "to comprehend how somebody in his position with his background would do what he did."
A former colleague of Rahman's, Alicia Bella, said she couldn't reconcile the charges with the person she knew. "I'm very surprised. My heart goes out to her, and I want to do everything I can to help her," she said. "I know what this country does to people who express themselves. I'm definitely worried."
Prosecutors say the two lawyers drove Mattis's tan minivan late in the evening of May 29 to participate in widespread protests in Brooklyn's Fort Greene neighborhood. There, just before 1 a.m. on May 30, Rahman approached an empty NYPD vehicle with an already broken window and tossed in a makeshift explosive device, according to court filings. She also "attempted to distribute Molotov cocktails to several other individuals and to incite them to use the Molotov cocktails in the course of the protests."
The van, driven by Mattis, then "fled the scene," court documents say, and shortly thereafter police stopped the vehicle and found "precursor items" to build explosives, including a lighter, a Bud Light bottle stuffed with toilet paper and a gasoline tank. Both Mattis and Rahman have been indicted on charges including use of explosives, arson and civil disorder. They haven't entered a plea.
Though the alleged actions of the two did not cause physical harm to any individual, their behavior, as described by prosecutors, came at the height of both the protests that swept the city and an eruption of destructive looting and property damage that sparked days of tension between police and those who had taken to the streets.
By all accounts, their alleged actions stand in contrast to their nature.
According to their friends and lawyers and a review of their professional experiences and personal lives, Mattis and Rahman are lifelong social justice advocates with deep interests in civil rights and police reform, but neither displayed signs that they might engage in the sort of violent outburst of which they are accused.
Mattis was raised and attended public school in East New York, a section of Brooklyn that has among the highest crime rates and lowest-performing schools in the city, according to public records.
He went on to attend St. Andrew's School, a prestigious private institution in Middletown, Delaware, where he published an essay for the school magazine that signaled his nascent interest in social and economic justice issues.
He wrote that, inspired by his colonial history class and the Kanye West song "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," he had organized a forum on the trade of blood diamonds.
"As I researched the brutality of mining diamonds and lack of compensation, I was reminded of my time working at a fair trade coffee cooperative in Mexico over the summer," he wrote. "There I learned the values of fair trade, and met the people who make an inexpensive commodity that Americans just consume. I realized that just because America is a capitalist society, success does not need to ultimately be 'someone loses and someone wins,' but rather everyone can win and have enough to live comfortably."
At Princeton University, where Mattis studied sociology and played rugby, he appears to have amassed a dedicated group of friends.
During an early teleconference in his court case, his attorney, Sabrina Shroff, told the judge that "almost all of the colleagues that he had at Princeton are either on this line, have called me or e-mailed me or offered to support him in one way or another."
She added: "I could not overemphasize here the level of support that Colin has received from the Princeton community." Reached by CNN, she declined to comment for this story, though she told the court in a filing Tuesday that the alleged conduct outlined in the charges is "highly aberrational." Of the suggestion Mattis would be involved in violent acts, she wrote, "he is no such person."
After two years teaching math and science in New Orleans as part of Teach for America, Mattis returned to New York City to attend law school, where he struck classmates as unaffected by the trappings of the institutions he had attended.
"I think it's very easy in that kind of setting to get wrapped up in the doctrine of the law and in grades, and he always wanted to use a law degree to do good in this world," said Olivia Ensign, a friend of his from law school who remains in close contact with him.
To Mattis, she said, that meant "that it's not enough to really have access to these places of power and privilege, that you need to bring in other people and make sure that anything you do is with a sense of community and bringing down structural inequality."
When he ran for social chair of the law school's student bar association, he described himself in his campaign pitch as "pretty chill & super friendly + I like dopeness." He suggested that as chair he would push for food at events, puppies at dog therapy, "and whatever fresh ideas y'all have."
When he campaigned the next year to continue on as a third-year representative, Mattis advocated a plan for free or subsidized coffee on campus and to "strengthen our intellectual community as a space for open and sincere discourse around legal and societal issues that matter."
"A vote for me is a vote for more awesome at NYU Law!" he wrote.
He did corporate work at the law firm Holland & Knight after graduating, while volunteering for a group called Her Justice, which provides lawyers for women living in poverty. There, Mattis and another lawyer won an award for their advocacy for a mother seeking financial support for her young daughter, according to the group's website.
More recently, he worked at mid-size law firm Pryor Cashman LLP in its corporate practice group and was a member of the local community board in his childhood neighborhood of East New York, where he returned to live with his mother.
He was furloughed from the firm in April, amid the coronavirus pandemic, and after his arrest, the firm placed him on suspension without pay.
"As we confront critical issues around historic and ongoing racism and inequity in our society, I am saddened to see this young man allegedly involved in the worst kind of reaction to our shared outrage over what had occurred," the firm's managing partner, Ronald H. Shechtman, said in a statement at the time of Mattis's arrest.
During his employment at Pryor Cashman, Mattis's home life took a turn, according to his lawyer and friends. His mother fell ill of uterine cancer while caring for three foster children. Last year, Mattis's mother died, and he assumed full-time care of the children, ages 5, 7 and 11, moving forward on the adoption process for two of them, with plans to do so for the third, according to his lawyer.
A friend of both Mattis and Rahman, Salmah Rizvi, recalled him as unfazed by the daunting task of suddenly caring for three children on his own.
"He was inspired by this new responsibility and he felt that it really helped him to manage his time," she said, adding that he attended all of their parent-teacher conferences. "He felt it was nothing but a blessing. Never ever did he use the word 'stress.'"
Rahman cut a similar path. A Pakistani immigrant, she arrived in Brooklyn at age 4 with her mother to meet her father, who was already living in the US. Rahman grew up in Bay Ridge, where she attended public school and then gained entry to Brooklyn Technical High School, a specialized school that is one of the most competitive in New York City. Next came Fordham University.
In law school, also at Fordham, she became deeply interested in refugee rights and international human rights, winning a fellowship to work as a lawyer in Turkey, where she helped asylum-seekers in Istanbul, and then did similar work in Cairo for a group called Saint Andrew's Refugee Services, according to her lawyer.
When she returned to New York, she got involved in local politics, becoming policy director for a longshot 2017 mayoral campaign by Robert Gangi, an activist and police reform advocate whose central campaign proposal was to eliminate "broken windows" policing in New York.
The eradication of that practice, which holds that issuing summonses and making arrests for minor offenses helps ward off more serious crimes, was important to Rahman, recalled Bella, one of Gangi's campaign managers.
Bella said Rahman kept their team organized, but rather than being a taskmaster, took on extra work herself if it needed to be done.
"I was talking to a few of our colleagues about everything and we were saying, when I forget how to keep going in politics, I think of Urooj. She was the reason why I felt like I could make a difference and my voice mattered," Bella said. "Everything she did was to help underprivileged people."
Rahman's professional interests, however, belie the more casual side of a young woman who loves Cardi B, the New York Yankees and Bollywood dancing, her friends said.
Rizvi, the mutual friend of Rahman and Mattis, said Rahman helped choreograph dances for a ceremony the night before Rizvi's wedding, and often assists her in the kitchen.
"I like to cook, and she's always willing to cut my onions for me so I don't have to cry."
Prior to her detainment, Rahman had been working for Bronx Legal Services, where she fought evictions for impoverished tenants in housing court, and was responsible for caring for her mother, who is in declining health, doing her grocery shopping and getting her medications.
At an early court hearing, a lawyer for Rahman noted that the care she provided for her mother was so extensive that she draws a stipend from a home health care organization.
Now, however, Rahman may face a bleak outlook. As a prosecutor put it in court: "She has thrown away her career in the law when she threw that Molotov cocktail at a New York City Police Department vehicle."
Since the protests, video that appears to include an interview with Rahman taken the evening of the alleged incident has surfaced online.
Posted to YouTube by a group called Loudlabs News NYC, the video shows a woman who gives her name as "Urooj" and who wears the same outfit in which Rahman was photographed that evening.
"This has got to stop, and the only way they hear us is through violence, through the means that they use," she says. "Gotta use the master's tools, that's what my friend always says."
She continues: "What I saw was targeting of property, and no property is above a human life. Destruction of property is nothing compared to the murder of a human life. So I understand why people are doing it. It's a way to show their pain, their anger, because it just never stops."
Her lawyer, Paul Shechtman, said the conduct laid out in the charges, if believed, was "an aberrant act in the heat of the civil protests that have swept the country over police violence and systemic racism. Viewed in the context of her life, violence is clearly not Ms. Rahman's way."
Though Rahman and Mattis were initially granted bail by a US District Court judge, an appeals court ordered that they be detained while Brooklyn federal prosecutors appeal the bail decision. Since last week, the two have been incarcerated at the Metropolitan Detention Center.
Rahman's lawyer disclosed in a court filing Tuesday arguing against her detention that she is being "held in isolation (in quarantine) for two weeks," adding that "to believe that Ms. Rahman will turn to violence if released to home detention -- and thereby risk substantial harm to herself and to family and friends -- is to substitute fiction for reason."
In an unusual step, a group of 56 former federal prosecutors also submitted a proposed brief to the court Tuesday to argue that federal prosecutors in the Rahman and Mattis case have misconstrued the bail laws and that the defendants have been wrongly jailed.
Meanwhile, their detention has alarmed their friends.
"They're just amazing people," said Rizvi. "They're really kind-hearted and they do not deserve to be in jail right now. They are not a threat."
Correction: A previous version of this story had the incorrect name of the school Mattis attended. He attended St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware.