How a flawed criminal justice system put a pregnant Detroit activist behind bars 

click to enlarge Siwatu-Salama Ra, then 15 years old, pictured speaking at an environmental justice rally in Wisconsin. - SHADIA FAYNE WOOD/SURVIVAL MEDIA
  • Shadia Fayne Wood/Survival Media
  • Siwatu-Salama Ra, then 15 years old, pictured speaking at an environmental justice rally in Wisconsin.

Siwatu-Salama Ra is the kind of young Detroiter who inspires hope. Raised between Northwest Detroit and California, the black mom began fighting for environmental justice in the city at just 19 years old, taking on polluters like Southwest Detroit’s Marathon Oil Refinery and the Detroit Renewable Power trash incinerator.

Now, seven years later, the 26-year-old is the co-director of the Cass Corridor’s East Michigan Environmental Action Council. In recent years she channeled her energy toward educating other young Detroit moms about nutrition and how to avoid harmful chemicals in food. Before that, she developed programs in Detroit schools to engage kids in environmental causes, and some of those students are now graduating college and building their own careers around environmental justice. She represented Detroit in events at the Paris Climate talks, and is organizing a large conference in the city that will bring together environmentalists from around the nation in May.

And yet today Ra — who is pregnant — sits in prison, where she faces the prospect of giving birth to her second child in June. According to her attorneys, she’s there because she brandished a registered firearm to defend herself, her mother, and her 2-year-old daughter from an attack by a woman who repeatedly tried hitting them with a car.

Michigan’s Stand Your Ground Law covers those acting in self-defense, but Detroit Police, prosecutors, and a jury say Ra acted as the aggressor. That led to felonious assault and felony firearm convictions, the latter of which carries a mandatory sentence of two years.

Law enforcement and the jury arrived at their verdict, in part, because the assailant gave police a different account of events, and on the surface it’s a he-said-she-said case with contradictory stories. But Ra’s supporters say there’s much more at play. They contend a confluence of larger forces out of her control determined her fate, and a two-year prison sentence for one of the city’s most promising young, black leaders exposes deep flaws in the criminal justice system.

That starts with questionable investigative policy at the Detroit Police Department — 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. In other words, whoever reaches the Detroit police first is considered the victim.

At the sentencing, Michigan’s mandatory sentencing laws for crimes committed with a gun stripped the judge of any discretion. That eliminated consideration for the incident’s circumstances, Ra’s clean record, her community work, and other factors that should weigh into a sentence. Ra’s attorneys stress that they don’t blame the judge — they fault the Michigan Legislature, which passed the minimum sentence law in 1977.

Beyond that, attorneys say that the jury appeared hurried to wrap up the case before a snowstorm hit, made its decision while unaware of the two-year mandatory prison term, and arrived at a contradictory verdict.

And at her sentencing, Ra spoke of the role she believes race played in the jury’s decision.

“The prosecutor convinced the jury and judge that I lacked fear and that’s not true,” Ra said. “I was so afraid, especially for my toddler and mother. I don’t believe they could imagine a black woman being scared — only mad.”

The case also raises other questions about race in the criminal justice system and Stand Your Ground. Multiple studies show mandatory sentences and mandatory minimums disproportionately send African Americans to jail.

About two years ago, white men and women in the “Bundy gang” carried out an armed siege of government property in Oregon. They pointed assault rifles at police officers in an armed standoff that lasted 41 days, yet that group’s leaders walk free after being acquitted on felony firearm charges.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, a young, black community leader sits in prison for brandishing a handgun that wasn’t loaded in an effort to defend her child and mother from a physical attack. An obvious question is, “Would Siwatu-Salama Ra be in prison if she was a right-wing white man wearing a 10-gallon hat?”

Victoria Burton-Harris, one of Ra's attorneys, isn't so sure.

“You're allowed to behave differently when you’re fearful based on the color of your skin,” Burton-Harris tells us. “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.”


The incident

The confrontation took place in July 2017 in front of Ra’s mother’s house on Sturtevant Street in Detroit, and stemmed from a fight that took place a few months earlier between Ra’s niece and the niece’s friend.

In an interview with Metro Times, Ra’s legal team described its account of the events: When that friend showed up at Ra’s mother’s house in July, Ra ordered her out. That allegedly led to a verbal confrontation between Ra and the friend’s mother, Chanell Harvey, who had driven to the home to pick up her daughter.

Lawyers say 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, Harvey pulled out her cell phone and snapped three photos of Ra holding the gun, lawyers say. She then went to the police and reported that she was confronted by a hostile and gun-wielding Ra.

“It’s not a very truthful account,” says Burton-Harris.

A race to the police department

Still, it’s the only account DPD detectives would consider, lawyers say.

Ra filed her police report several hours after Harvey, but it wouldn’t be until three weeks later when a SWAT team raided Ra’s Macomb Township house that she would learn that the DPD didn’t care what she had to say. Months later, during the trial, a DPD detective testified that the department considers the person who arrives at the police station first to be the victim, lawyers say. Thus, detectives were not allowed to speak to Ra directly.

Such a policy seems to make the process of determining what happened — investigating — rather difficult, and opens up a very real possibility of a wrongful conviction.

A DPD spokesperson told Metro Times that such a policy isn't in place, but she didn’t speak with the detective in question. However, Burton-Harris says such an approach is a real problem that she frequently encounters in court.

“I see way too many cases that shouldn't be there because the quality, or lack thereof, in local police departments’ investigations,” she says. “To have a policy that you don't investigate allegations because they were made second is asinine. It doesn't protect anybody, it doesn't help you to do a good job and investigate what the truth is, and it clogs up the court system.”

In Ra’s case, the prosecutor’s office didn’t question DPD’s investigation, yet it filed two felonious assault charges — one for Ra pointing the gun at Harvey, and another for pointing it at her daughter, who was also in the car.

But how could Ra — a properly licensed gun owner — be charged with assault for pointing a licensed gun at an assailant?

Desiree Ferguson, an attorney acting in an advisory role on Ra’s appeal, explains that Michigan’s concealed pistol license and Stand Your Ground laws authorize a person to carry a gun and use it if they are physically threatened. But the question of whether one is acting in defense or committing an assault becomes a matter of fact for the jury to determine.

“If someone points a gun at me and I didn’t do anything, then that’s a crime,” Ferguson explains.

And that, in essence, is the prosecutor's office and DPD’s claim — Harvey’s repeated attempts to run over Ra’s family members somehow didn’t warrant Ra to pull out a gun. And they asked the jury to agree.

The trial

Before they did so, the prosecutor told Ra that if she waived her right to a preliminary examination, then she wouldn’t be hit with a felony firearm charge.

Ra declined the offer because it would have resulted in the exclusion of Harvey’s inconsistent testimony from the trial. Burton-Harris says Harvey — the prosecution’s main witness — changed her story four times between the original statement and the February trial.

Still, a jury found Ra guilty. Burton-Harris says she believes that could be the result of other factors. 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.

But the decision doesn’t make sense, Burton-Harris says, because the jury found that Ra acted in self defense by pointing the gun at Harvey’s daughter in the passenger seat, but assaulted Harvey in the driver’s seat. How could she be assaulting the person driving the car, but acting in self defense against the person in the passenger seat?

Burton-Harris says she believes that the trial’s length and the snowstorm factored into the jury’s quick and inconsistent decision: “I believe that they couldn’t come to an agreement so they said, ‘Let’s just split the baby.’”

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