The Corner

Law & the Courts

Siwatu-Salama Ra’s Self-Defense Claims, and the Other Side of the Story

(Carlballou/Dreamstime)

In the past week or so there have been numerous articles about the case of Detroit’s Siwatu-Salama Ra, an environmental activist and legal gun owner who was sent to prison while pregnant earlier this year over actions she says she took in self-defense.

This is a case that deserves close scrutiny from gun-rights advocates and has already garnered supportive comments from the NRA and the Second Amendment Foundation. But a lot of the media coverage has been incredibly slanted, sometimes to the point of not even explaining the other side of the story, and confusing on a factual level to boot. So here is an attempt to clarify the basic details, give the full picture, and relay some new comments from Detroit police and prosecutors — including a blanket denial that the police have a “race to the station” policy in which the person who files a report first is simply assumed to be the victim in the incident, as some have claimed.

The problem started at Ra’s mother’s house, when Ra tried to send one of her niece’s friends home. This friend had allegedly beat up the niece in a school bathroom, though the two had since made up. The friend’s mother, Chanell Harvey — on probation for an assault charge — arrived to pick up her daughter, furious that her kid wasn’t welcome.

In Ra’s telling, as the argument boiled over, Harvey deliberately rammed Ra’s car — in which Ra’s daughter, just two years old, was playing — and started driving her own car back and forth, menacing Ra and her mother. At this point, Ra got her (unloaded) handgun, which she was licensed to carry, out of the car’s glove compartment and pointed it at Harvey’s car to stop the threat. Michigan is a Stand Your Ground state, so Ra had no duty to retreat, and Ra also feared that her mother couldn’t get out of the car’s way.

Harvey tells a different story: Ra pulled a gun in the middle of a verbal dispute, and Harvey rammed Ra’s car only in an attempt to get away. “When the road cleared, but before she drove away, she stopped to take three pictures of Ra holding the gun, but Ra hid it out of sight behind her back,” MLive reports. Those pictures (which I am trying to get a hold of via freedom-of-information request) evidently were later used at trial as evidence that Ra “didn’t look scared.”

[Update: Click here to see a PDF of the photos.]

These conflicting stories eventually resulted in a unanimous, beyond-a-reasonable-doubt jury verdict against Ra — and Ra’s defenders say the process was warped from start to finish. Perhaps their weirdest allegation concerns a policy of the Detroit Police Department.

While Harvey filed a complaint with the police quickly (and apparently without mentioning that she’d hit Ra’s car), Ra didn’t report the incident for several hours. Ra’s lawyer has alleged that this had severe consequences under the protocol of Detroit police: Since she was the second person to file, she was assumed to be the aggressor, the police were “not allowed” to talk to her during the subsequent investigation, and her own complaint was all but ignored. One widely circulated Metro Times story from last month even claimed that a Detroit police spokesperson had confirmed this.

But Sergeant Nicole Kirkwood, the public-information officer who spoke with the reporter, says that he misunderstood her, and that she is working with him to run a correction. In reality, Detroit police say, it doesn’t matter who is listed as the “victim” on the first report, and there’s no rule against talking to alleged aggressors. “No matter what the circumstances — who’s reporting what happened, whether they go to the precinct or tell a patrol officer — the situation is investigated, and we look at the totality of the circumstances,” says Officer Holly Lowe, also a public-information officer for the department. “There’s no race to the station or to an officer.”

Maria Miller, an assistant prosecutor and director of communications for the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, similarly tells me (via email) that her office “has never heard of any policy regarding favoring whoever arrives first in time,” which “makes no sense.” She also writes that “all of the facts and evidence (witness statements and other corroborating evidence) were reviewed and it was determined that we had a case that we could charge and prove against Defendant Ra beyond a reasonable doubt.”

Ra ended up charged with assault with a dangerous weapon (against both Harvey and Harvey’s daughter, who was in the car when Ra pulled the gun); after she refused a plea deal, prosecutors added “felony firearm” (which, though some media outlets have called it “firearm possession,” refers to the use of a gun during the commission of a felony). At trial, the jury seemed to get sidetracked, with members asking why Ra’s young daughter had been playing in a car with a gun in the glove box, even though this was irrelevant to the charges. Also, there was a snowstorm coming during the deliberations, and the jury was not told that the gun charge came with a two-year mandatory minimum.

Ra was convicted of assaulting Harvey, though not Harvey’s daughter, and also of the firearm charge. Miller notes that the jury was “instructed that she did not have a duty to retreat if she had an honest and reasonable belief that the use of deadly force was necessary to prevent imminent death and/or great bodily harm,” adding that “they rejected her claim of self-defense under the facts.” Ra, for her part, is appealing the verdict.

Members of the jury have not come forward to speak to the media about how they saw things. Truth be told, without having seen the trial firsthand, it’s hard to say exactly why they believed so strongly that Ra had broken the law — or how reasonable their conclusion was.

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