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Appeals court overturns Siwatu-Salama Ra's assault conviction

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In a rare move, the Michigan Court of Appeals has reversed the jury conviction of an environmental justice activist sentenced to two years in prison for brandishing a gun during a 2017 altercation in Detroit.

Siwatu-Salama Ra claims she acted in self-defense when she pointed her licensed, unloaded weapon at another woman. Ra, her mother and niece all testified at trial that the woman was enraged, and using her car as a weapon to threaten Ra’s mother and two-year-old daughter.

Ra was convicted after Wayne County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Hathaway instructed the jury that Ra had used deadly force during the encounter. But the Court of Appeals found that instruction was wrong — Ra had used non-deadly force.

The legal standard for using the two types of force is different: to lawfully use deadly force, a person must have reason to believe they or someone else is in danger of being killed or seriously injured. But there’s more latitude to use non-deadly force — a person must only reasonably believe that they are protecting themselves or someone else from “the imminent unlawful use of force by another individual.”

The Court of Appeals found there was substantial evidence that Ra lawfully used the latter, and that “it is more probable than not that the lack of proper instruction affected the outcome of the case because it altered the test by which the jury decided this central issue.”

Ra’s appellate attorney, Wade Fink, says Ra’s entire trial was “a parade of errors.”

“I think the trial judge made numerous errors, some of which are just hard to understand, not just from a legal standpoint but from a human standpoint,” Fink says. “There’s just a lot of errors that culminated in this conviction, and I think the court looked at everything and looked at the legal soundness of some of our arguments, and saw that this was just not structurally a fair trial.”

Ra’s case drew widespread attention — in part because she was pregnant at the time of her conviction, and indeed was forced to give birth in prison before her eventual release on an appeals bond. The case also highlighted perceived discrepancies between how black and white gun owners are allowed to lawfully wield their weapons in self-defense.

The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office could appeal the ruling to the Michigan Supreme Court within 56 days. It could also decide to retry Ra, or drop the case altogether. Maria Miller, a spokeswoman for Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy, said Wednesday the office has not yet decided how it will proceed.

Fink is hopeful that the latter option will prevail.

“The prosecutors can look at this and say, you know what — this probably shouldn’t have been charged, at minimum it’s a very close call, and we’re going to dismiss the case and let this go,” Fink says. “I think that would be the just result, and that’s certainly an option for them.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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