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US Airman Michael Giles’ 25 Year Sentence Is Proof That Stand Your Ground Does Not Apply To Black People

Michael Giles, a military vet and father of three, shot and wounded a man in self-defense during a brawl outside a Tallahassee, Florida, nightclub. (Photo: YouTube)

Another white man has invoked the “stand your ground” or “shoot first” law, this time in Clearwater, Florida, to justify the fatal shooting of a Black man and claim self-defense. The killing is yet another reminder that Stand Your Ground has not worked for Black people, as the conviction of a Black airman who shot and injured another man in self-defense shows.

Michael Drejka shot Markeis McGlockton to death in front of his family in a dispute over a handicapped parking spot outside a convenience store. The white gunman reportedly instigated the incident as the initial aggressor when he provoked McGlockton’s girlfriend, asked her why she parked in the spot, and more specifically told her to move her “f—car.” McGlockton, hearing the argument, left the convenience store to protect his partner and two of their three children who were in the car. The unarmed Black man reportedly shoved Drejka to the ground, and Drejka then shot McGlockton — who was backing away — in the torso, according to surveillance video. The gunman claimed he felt threatened, and the Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri argued the man is protected and cannot be arrested, a claim even the Republican sponsors of the legislation and the NRA refute.

The first-of-its-kind legislation in the nation, Florida’s stand your ground law was signed into law in 2005 and allows an individual to use deadly force without retreating if the person reasonably believes it is necessary for protection from a perceived threat.  In 2017, the Florida law was changed, shifting the burden in pretrial hearings from the defendant to the prosecutor to prove whether force was used lawfully in self-defense, thereby making it easier for defendants to commit an act of violence and get away with it. Having a person assert self-defense and then shifting the burden to the state to prove that person is not entitled to immunity under stand your ground is unprecedented in criminal law. Although a state court found the 2017 changes to the law unconstitutional on the grounds that courts rather than the legislature had jurisdiction to make such a change, the law was upheld by an appellate court.

After Florida, 25 states have enacted their own version of stand your ground, which critics claim allows people to shoot to kill unarmed Black people in acts of racial vigilante violence. The racial implications of stand your ground came to light in 2012 when George Zimmerman, a self-proclaimed neighborhood watch volunteer killed Trayvon Martin, 17, in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, like Michael Drejka in the Markeis McGlockton shooting, was the aggressor, a claim Zimmerman denies. Although in claiming self-defense Zimmerman did not seek stand your ground immunity from prosecution before his 2013 trial, he was acquitted of second-degree murder charges by a jury that heard the law cited in its pre-deliberation instructions.

When Black people have invoked stand your ground to justify the use of deadly force, typically the law has not worked for them. For example, Michael Giles, like Zimmerman, did not pursue stand your ground immunity from prosecution. But when Giles’ lawyer raised a stand your ground defense in his closing arguments the jury returned a guilty verdict, and Giles is serving a 25-year sentence.  In 2010, Giles, an airman who had recently returned from six years of duty in Iraq and Kuwait, went to a bar in Tallahassee with a group of his friends. A fight ensued in the parking lot among 30 to 40 mostly college students from Florida A&M University. Giles, who did not instigate the fight and did not want to leave his friends, went to retrieve his gun. During the melee, Courtney Thrower, a Florida A&M student, struck Giles on the back of the head, and Giles shot Thrower in the thigh.

Giles, who did not engage in the brawl until after he was attacked, was found guilty of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon and sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 25 years behind bars under Florida’s problematic 10-20-Life law. The law, which contradicted the stand your ground law, provided for a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years for a felony conviction in which someone brandished a gun. Firing the gun adds another 10 years, even if no one was hit, with a 25-years-to-life sentence if someone was hit. Marissa Alexander, who was given a 20-year sentence for firing a warning shot at her abusive former husband before her conviction was overturned on appeal and she was granted a new trial, was sentenced under the controversial 10-20-Life law. Alexander’s new trial was granted not on the basis of stand your ground but rather because of erroneous jury instructions on self-defense.

In addition, the case of Siwatu-Salama Ra in Detroit has focused further attention on the racially unequal application of stand your ground and mandatory minimums as it concerns Black women gun owners. A Black Muslim woman, a mother and an environmental activist, Ra, 26, received a mandatory two-year sentence for felonious assault and felony firearm —use of a firearm while committing a felony — after using her registered firearm to protect her family. Ra brandished her gun at someone who allegedly attempted to run over Ra’s mother, and rammed her car into Ra’s vehicle while the activist’s 2-year-old daughter was playing inside. Like Florida, Michigan has a stand your ground statute.

At Giles’ sentencing, the judge said the punishment did not fit the crime and but for the mandatory sentencing provision, he would not have imposed the sentence. In 2016, 10-20-Life was repealed, allowing judges discretion in sentencing and eliminating the arbitrariness of mandatory minimums. However, changes to the law — which had secured over 15,000 convictions in Florida — do not impact those such as Michael Giles who were already imprisoned under the original law.

Last year, an appellate court rejected Giles’ claim that he had received inadequate legal representation in declining to testify. One of the judges on the panel wrote a strong dissent insisting Giles’ attorney provided inadequate legal assistance by failing to provide advice to his client at the most crucial time of the trial. An online petition asking Gov. Rick Scott — who is currently a candidate for U.S. Senate — and the Florida Clemency Board to commute Giles’ sentence has received nearly 158,000 signatures as of publication.

Meanwhile, stand your ground remains in Florida, with a 22 percent increase in the murder rate since passage, and racial disparities in the application of the law. Data from the Urban Institute revealed that in states with stand your ground laws homicides are twice as likely to be deemed justifiable homicides. In shooting incidents in which both the shooter and the victim are black, 8 percent of the cases are ruled justifiable homicides. When both the shooter and victim are white, 11 percent are justifiable. Meanwhile, when the shooter is Black and the victim is white, only 3 percent of such cases are justifiable. But when the when the shooter is white and the victim is Black, as in the case of Michael Drejka and Markeis McGlockton, fully 34 percent of these killings are ruled justifiable.

In this election season in Florida, all five Democratic candidates for governor attended a rally in Clearwater for Markeis McGlockton. The parents of Trayvon Martin attended as well. As a result of this most recent killing, state Democrats are calling for a repeal of stand your ground — a law that allows white gunmen to go free for killing Black victims, and puts Black gun owners behind bars.

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