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Lawyers challenge federal charges about Facebook posts regarding St. Louis protests

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ST. LOUIS — Lawyers for a homeless St. Louis man federally charged with posting a napalm recipe on Facebook asked a judge on Thursday for the charge to be dismissed, saying it wasn’t supported by any evidence.

Marcus Marlvin Hunt, 29, is one of only three people who have been charged with a federal crime resulting from a week of protests in the St. Louis region.

Hunt was charged by complaint in U.S. District Court on Sunday with distribution of information relating to explosives, destructive devices and weapons of mass destruction. He’s accused of providing a recipe for napalm on Facebook and encouraging his Facebook followers to travel to St. Louis.

In a rare challenge at such an early stage of a criminal prosecution, Hunt’s federal public defenders on Thursday filed a motion saying the criminal complaint was invalid because Hunt provided no information that wasn’t widely available elsewhere online. There was also no evidence that he intended to use the information for violence, the motion said.

Hunt is homeless and has untreated bipolar disorder with mania, a lawyer said during a court hearing Wednesday. Hunt has been variously described as the “mayor” or “governor” of a St. Louis homeless encampment that was cleared by city officials last month over coronavirus concerns. He was relocated to a Red Roof Inn, where he was arrested on the federal charge.

Hunt told a judge Wednesday that he had been helping provide food and water to the homeless, and needed to get out of jail to continue doing so.

Separately, a lawyer for prominent area activist Mike Avery, similarly charged for Facebook posts, said Friday that she also will seek to have the charge dismissed. Avery, 28, was charged Sunday with rioting, accused of providing instructions on how to loot, calling for “shooters” and asking followers for the names of bicycle police.

Avery lawyer Marlene Suarez told the Post-Dispatch on Friday that she would be challenging the recommendation by prosecutors that he be held in jail. She said she also will challenge the charge, citing First Amendment grounds among other arguments.

In a hearing Wednesday, Assistant Federal Public Defender Kevin Gau, who was representing Avery at the time, cautioned that Avery’s online words had not been linked to any specific acts of violence.

“I think there’s a real danger in these times (of protest activity) of potential misinterpretation,” he said.

He said the reference to shooters could have more a benign interpretation, that it wasn’t a crime to write in the third person about what looters did in Minneapolis and that keeping track of the names of police was “a valid purpose” during times when some officers have been accused of misconduct or crimes during protests.

“Those actions are not criminal,” he said.

Asked about the charge against Avery, Peter Joy, a professor at the Washington University School of Law, said in an email that prosecutors might have a hard time proving their case without evidence of him specifically advocating violence.

“The FBI agent drew a lot of conclusions based on what Avery posted, but Avery never said ‘come and start some looting’ or ‘shooters, come shooting,’” Joy wrote.

Avery, of the St. Louis area, is a single father of a 3-year-old daughter and owner of a lawn care business.

Maurnice Baker works with Avery at Bring Them Home Search and Rescue STL, which seeks out missing area youth. She said he always is first to go into vacant houses or possible drug houses.

“Mike is our foot soldier,” Baker said. “Mike has brought over 25 kids home.”

She said he helped board up the windows of Cathy’s Kitchen in Ferguson, and stopped people from looting a Family Dollar.

The third person facing a federal offense, Christopher Thomas Gaston, 40, was charged as a result of the investigation into the shooting of four St. Louis police officers early this week. Gaston has not been linked by authorities to that shooting.

In charging documents, an FBI agent said Gaston was spotted outside his apartment Monday night with a shotgun, and a later search of his apartment found that shotgun, as well as a pistol and ammunition.

Gaston is a convicted felon and is barred from owning guns or ammunition.

His lawyer, Bret Rich, told the Post-Dispatch that Gaston and his wife live across the street from the 7-Eleven at 17th and Pine streets that was looted and burned Monday night.

He said the couple called police but they did not come, and Gaston was just defending the couple’s cars and themselves and their neighbors.

A prosecutor said Friday that the officers, who were shot near 16th and Olive streets, were not wounded by a shotgun.

The officers were treated for their injuries and released from a hospital.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Marcus Hunt's middle name.

Robert Patrick • 314-340-8131

@rxpatrick on Twitter

RPatrick@post-dispatch.com

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