I’ve often thought of laws as not only rules to maintain an orderly society, they’re also the tools used to first discern accountability and then to dispense justice. On their face, they are aesthetically neutral and will point wherever such accountability lies without regard for gender, race, age or creed. That they apply to all men goes without saying. If that be the case then the answer to the question posed above should be a resounding and loud, yes!
However, if the case of Marissa Alexander or Michael Giles is any indication then all I’d be able to gather would be a soft and tentative, I don’t know.
Many of you have probably already heard of Marissa Alexander; battered housewife who received a sentence of 20 years for firing a warning shot in the air to get her estranged and abusive husband out of her house. She has since been released from prison on bond, pending a new trial, in time to spend Thanksgiving with her family. Her new trial begins in March 2014.
On the other hand, I wonder how many of you, if any, are aware of the case of Michael Giles. Airman Michael Giles is currently serving a sentence for shooting his assailant in the leg after being attacked and knocked to the ground in a club melee. Giles was not involved in the fighting, did not start it nor participate in it in any way, even according to witnesses and the testimony of his attacker. On the ground he pulled his weapon, one that he had a concealed carry permit for, and fired one shot into the leg of his assailant. Unfortunately, bullet fragments from that single shot also injured two other men. But despite claiming a stand your ground defense, Giles was sentenced to 25 years.
Both Alexander and Giles were sentenced under another dubious Florida statute known as 10-20-life. Initiated in 1999, it’s a statute that enforces mandatory sentencing; 10 years for brandishing a weapon in the commission of a crime, 20 years for discharging that weapon during that crime and life for the killing of an individual with said weapon during that crime.
As always, the main problem with mandatory sentences is that they do not allow judges to adjudicate. Decisions are already made for them without any thought or speculation or debate. Nowhere does the human condition come into play; that bit of compassion or wisdom that needs to be present when making a judgment governing a person’s life.
The other aspects of the case are obvious. First and foremost, both Alexander and Giles are African-American. The other is despite a stand your ground defense claimed by both parties with them in fear for their own safety, no one was killed. Giles did not kill his attacker, he wounded him and Alexander did not shoot to kill her battering husband, she fired a warning shot in the air to get him to leave. For both of these individuals, their discretion was the better part of valor. At least, it should’ve been viewed as such.
So the question becomes, why was their stand your ground defense denied and are we looking at the beginning of a trend?
In spite of all we know about battered women, the judge did not feel that Alexander behaved as a woman who feared for her life. The jury apparently agreed and took only 15 minutes to render its verdict. The irony here is that if there’s any class that SYG should benefit its battered women. Yet, it was the same old song in Florida that day for Marissa Alexander’s trial. Even in 2013, a woman has to damn near die and become a statistic before the courts even begin to think that she has the right to protect herself.
Michael Giles was sentenced under the 10-20-life mandatory statute because he fired unlawfully into a crowd, the prosecutor dismissing his claim that he was in fear of losing his life when he did so. His military service was not considered-an active duty airman fresh from two tours in the Middle East-nor was it a factor in his sentencing that he had no police record and was a father from a law-abiding career military family.
Now these aren’t the only two SYG cases involving African-Americans going on across the country, I’m sure and they’re probably not the only ones happening in the state of Florida either. So decisions about fairness or racism can’t be made relying solely on the facts of these two alone. The other thing to keep in mind is that the law can be ruthlessly unreliable when attempting to second guess it, even on its best days.
But these two cases, coming so close on the heels of the botched George Zimmerman trial, speak to the continued unfairness in a judicial system that’s seen its share of prosecutorial abuse or neglect when it comes to people of color. Is it then any wonder that folks feel something more is going on? Is the state erroneously using its 10-20-life statute to unfairly prosecute blacks who evoke their right to self defense? These are the questions that need to be answered, and answered quickly.
The state of Florida recognized its mistake in the case of Marissa Alexander and is issuing her a new trial. One can only hope it does so for Michael Giles, sooner rather than later. It’s the only way to restore confidence in a judicial system and statute that’s already beset with charges of racism.