Michigan Court of Appeals Has Reversed the Felony Assault Convictions of a Gun Owner Who Acted in Self-Defense – Reason.com
A year after Siwatu-Salama Ra was convicted of assaulting a woman with a deadly weapon and committing a crime in possession of a firearm, the Michigan Court of Appeals overturned her conviction. Both charges stemmed from an incident in which Ra tried to protect herself, her 2-year-old daughter and mother from a woman who threatened to run them down with her car.
How reason previously reported, The incident in question happened when Ra, then pregnant, was visiting her mother at her mother’s house in 2017. Ra’s 2 year old daughter was with her and her teenage niece was also present. When A’Kayla Smith, a teenage worker for Ra’s niece, arrived at the house, Ra told Smith that she was not invited to visit because of an argument the two teenagers had at school. Ra asked Smith to call her mother to pick her up.
When Channell Harvey, Smith’s mother, arrived at Ra’s mother’s house, she yelled at Smith and Ra from her car parked on the street. Ra testified after Smith got into her mother’s car, told Harvey to leave, and in response, Harvey deliberately put her car in Ra’s car, which contained Ra’s 2-year-old daughter, and then tried to get Ra’s mother, Rhonda Anderson running down.
Anderson testified that Harvey knew before she got into Ra’s car that Ra’s 2-year-old daughter was inside. Ra’s niece testified that after Harvey hit the car, Ra got her daughter out of the car, asked her niece to bring the girl into the house, and then got an unloaded and legally owned pistol from her console and took it to Harvey swinging as she urged to go. Ra’s mother testified that Ra did not retrieve the gun until Harvey tried to run down Anderson while she was standing in her own front yard. Harvey, meanwhile, testified that she accidentally hit Ra’s car after Ra pointed the gun at her and that she never tried to hit Anderson with her car.
Nobody said that Ra had fired the gun.
Harvey took photos of her car with Ra holding the gun and eventually drove to a police station where she reported the incident. Ra reported the incident three hours later. Since Harvey submitted her report first, Detroit police treated her as a victim according to the department’s guidelines. Harvey was never accused of driving her vehicle in Ra’s.
Ra was charged with the crime of Harvey, the crime of Harvey’s daughter, who was at the time in Harvey’s vehicle, and the crime of possession of a firearm. A jury found Ra not guilty of assaulting Harvey’s daughter, but rather guilty of assaulting Harvey and of possessing a firearm on behalf of a crime. Ra received a mandatory minimum sentence of two years and gave birth behind bars.
On Tuesday, the Michigan Court of Appeals unanimously overturned Ra’s convictions and argued in his decision that her trial judge did not adequately advise the Ra jury of her claim in self-defense and that this mistake likely affected the outcome of her case.
It gets a bit weedy here, but it’s worth understanding exactly where Ra’s trial judge went wrong.
Ra’s defense asked that the jury be instructed to determine whether Ra was entitled to use non-lethal force to defend himself. The trial judge found that a firearm – even one that is unloaded in the course of a dispute and never actually fired – was indeed lethal force and instructed the jury to determine whether Ra was entitled to use lethal force in self-defense.
However, several precedents highlighted by the Michigan Court of Appeals indicate that Ra’s justices, Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Hathaway, was wrong to equate the threat of lethal force with the use of lethal force; and that by definition only the threat of lethal force – in this case swinging but not firing a weapon – is fundamentally non-lethal.
The distinction between lethal and non-lethal violence plays a major role. Michigan’s Self-Defense Act states that a person can use lethal force if they “honestly and reasonably believe that the use of lethal force is necessary to prevent impending death or impending great assault to themselves or another person”. However, the test of the Use of Non-Lethal Force Act is much simpler. It requires that the person “honestly and reasonably believe that the use of such violence is necessary to defend himself or another person against the impending unlawful use of force by another person”.
The Michigan Court of Appeals argued that if Ra’s jury had been properly briefed, it might have established that she was entitled to use non-lethal force to dissuade Anderson from further aggression. “The evidence presented in this case supports the conclusion that it was reasonable for the Defendant to believe that she had to use force to protect herself or others from Harvey’s impending unlawful use of force, even if it was not reasonable to believe that that she was in danger of being killed or seriously injured, “said the appeal court’s decision.
And if the jury had come to that conclusion, they would not have found Ra guilty of committing a crime while in possession of a firearm.
“This is a great victory for justice” Wade Fink, Ra’s attorney, said Reason in a statement. “”Siwatu acted in self-defense and we hope the case will be dismissed outright. But if this case is brought up again, we want to prove it – this time through a fair trial, in which Siwatu is allowed to bring a defense. “
Ra’s ordeal is not necessarily over yet. While Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Donald Knapp Jr. decided in November 2018 to release her from prison, prosecutors will now decide whether or not to try Ra a second time.
Should prosecutors decide to try Ra again, the decision would set a bad precedent for the right to legal self-defense, especially for black gun owners. Vox reported In 2018, Ra’s conviction drew concerns from a wide range of politics, from Black Lives Matter to the National Rifle Association.