After pregnant 26-year-old Siwatu-Salama Ra brandished her registered and unloaded firearm to defend herself and her two-year-old daughter from an assailant who, she and her attorneys claim, repeatedly attempted to hit them with a car, she was sentenced to a mandatory two years in prison.
The sentence was given even though Ra possesses a concealed carry permit and lives in Michigan, an open carry state that also has a “Stand Your Ground” law.
According to an interview between Ra’s legal team and the Detroit Metro-Times, last year Ra’s niece had gotten into a fight with a friend, who later showed up at Ra’s mother’s house in July 2017. When Ra demanded the friend leave, the friend’s mother, Chanell Harvey, picked her up from the home, at which point a quarrel occurred in front of Ra’s mother’s house:
[Ra’s legal] team said the situation escalated quickly, with Harvey using her car to ram Ra’s vehicle while Ra’s 2-year-old daughter played inside. Harvey then allegedly attempted to run over Ra’s mother, at which point Ra grabbed her registered — and unloaded — handgun from her glovebox.
Ra pointed the gun at Harvey’s car, which deterred the attack. But instead of fleeing, the team said Harvey pulled out her cell phone and snapped three photos of Ra holding the gun. She then went to the police and reported that she was confronted by a hostile and gun-wielding Ra.
Although Michigan is a “Stand Your Ground” state, in which people can legally use force to defend or protect themselves from perceived threats, Ra was seen as the aggressor because Harvey provided her account to the police first. According to the Metro-Times:
An attorney for Ra says a detective testified that it investigated her as the aggressor from the outset simply because the other party filed a police report several hours sooner…
A DPD spokesperson told Metro Times that such a policy is in place, but didn’t speak with the detective in question.
As a result, Ra received felony assault and firearms convictions — the latter of which requires a mandatory sentence of two years.
One of Ra’s attorneys, Victoria Burton-Harris, compared Ra’s situation to that of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted of all charges in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012 in Florida, another state with a “Stand Your Ground” law:
“You’re allowed to behave differently when you’re fearful based on the color of your skin. George Zimmerman was allowed to be fearful and to act on that fear. He was allowed to take the life of an unarmed black child. Juxtapose that next to my client who had a car coming at her mother, and that same car had just presented danger to her child. It was driven by the complaining witness, but Siwatu wasn’t allowed to be fearful and rely on her government-licensed and sanctioned firearm to ward off her attacker.”
Unfortunately, bad weather and a desire to come to a decision quickly may have affected Ra’s right to a fair trial. According to the Metro-Times:
The jury was told the trial would likely only last two days, but it didn’t begin deliberations until midway through Thursday — the fourth day. The forecast called for a blizzard on Friday, and the judge told the jury that it would return to court regardless of the weather if it didn’t arrive at a decision. (It’s worth noting that the court did close on Friday.)
Burton-Harris adds that the jury wasn’t aware that Ra would receive a two-year prison sentence were she found guilty of any of the felony firearm charges because juries aren’t informed of mandatory sentences.
When the jury began deliberations with the snowstorm looming, it could be heard hotly debating the case from the jury room, Burton-Harris says. Still, it quickly came to a decision — guilty on one charge of felonious assault against Harvey, acquittal on a second felonious assault charge against Harvey’s daughter, and guilty on the felony firearm possession charge.
Ra’s attorneys have pointed out the absurdity of the decision, since the jury accepted that Ra was engaged in self-defense against Harvey’s daughter and therefore dismissed that charge — yet did not accept that Ra was engaged in self-defense against Harvey herself, who was driving the car.
This case is also one that demonstrates how, even in a Stand Your Ground state, mandatory minimum sentencing can result in lawful gun owners being sent to prison for arming and protecting themselves. And now, as a convicted felon, Ra is prohibited from possessing a firearm under federal law.
Ra’s attorneys plan to file an appeal, but in the meantime, Ra is seven months pregnant and in prison. Ra’s last pregnancy was high risk, so her attorneys are worried about the quality of healthcare, treatment, and her diet while in prison. Her attorneys had asked if Ra could serve her sentence after she gave birth.
Unfortunately, Judge Thomas Hathaway denied the request.
There appears to have been repeated miscarriages of justice and criminal justice failures throughout Ra’s trial and sentencing.
As Jane Coaston at Vox pointed out, in 2013 while discussing George Zimmerman’s acquittal and “Stand Your Ground” laws, NRA-ILA executive director Chris Cox said, “self-defense is not a concept. It’s a fundamental human right.” Surprisingly, the NRA does not yet appear to be rallying to Ra’s side to defend her Second Amendment right and to fight on her behalf.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of any other individual or entity. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @sarahmquinlan.