Michael Giles (Courtesy of the Giles family)

It is becoming increasingly obvious that if you are black, Stand Your Ground does not apply to you in Florida. The latest victim of the unequal criminal justice system is U.S. Airman Michael Giles.

In 2010, Giles—an Atlanta native—was on active duty in Tampa, FL. On the night in question, he attended a party with two friends when a number of brawls broke out among 20-30 people, which caused security to move the club-goers outside. Giles, simply a bystander, ended up being rushed by a group of people fighting. Giles tried to flee, but an unknown attacker struck him from behind, at which point he fell to the ground. With so many people fighting around him and his attacker close by, Michael feared for his life and fired his weapon, which he had a legal right to conceal and carry, in order to get away from the brawl. A bullet struck his attacker in the leg, which did not seriously injure him. After an investigation, it was later proven that shots from multiple shooters were fired that night and the only one that matched Giles gun was a single bullet lodged in a wall 100 feet away.

18439b9d_AF_picDespite all of the evidence leaning toward self-defense, the state did not offer Giles a plea deal and charged him with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon causing bodily harm that has a mandatory minimum sentence of 25 years. During the trial, his attacker stated that he was angered by someone interrupting his dance causing him to start multiple fights. He admitted that he was the aggressor, and that Michael did not provoke the attack. While on the witness stand, his attacker said, “I wanted to badly hurt the next person I saw.” Unfortunately, Giles was found guilty. At sentencing, even Giles’ judge felt his sentence was unjust stating: “Frankly, I think the 25-year mandatory is overly harsh based on the facts of this case, but that’s what the law requires I do and I intend to follow the law.” The officer who prepared Giles’ sentencing recommendation reported that Giles should be sentenced to probation because of his military service and clean criminal record. However, the state rejected her recommendation and pushed for the 25 years. Giles has been in prison ever since.

Last week, while in-between sessions at the Congressional Black Caucus’ Annual Legislative Conference, I spoke with his parents, Michael and Phyllis, by phone. During our conversation, I was disheartened not only by the district attorney’s unwillingness to give Giles probation, but the blatant mishandling of the case by Giles’ defense attorney, who changed his strategy at the last minute. Michael and Phyllis Giles eventually paid more than $90,000 to their son’s attorney believing an acquittal would be the result; instead, they got decisiveness.

“The whole time leading up to the trial, the lawyer said we would use the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law,” the elder Michael said. “For a year, that’s what we were preparing for. Then the night before the trial he switched it up and said he talked to his colleagues and felt we should use self-defense. He didn’t even allow Michael to testify on the stand. I don’t know what went wrong.”


Michael and his son the summer before his sentencing. (Family photo)

The elder Michael added, “It’s overwhelming; my son is a veteran. My wife and I are veterans, and have over 50 years of service between us. The justice system has let us down tremendously. He laid his life on the line for our country and when we needed our country to defend us, it let us down.”

A new report revealed that the system tends to “let down” more African-Americans who claim self-defense or Stand Your Ground, particularly when it results in death, unlike Giles’ case where his attacker had non-life threatening injuries. According to the study commissioned by the Mayors Against Illegal Guns coalition, the National Urban League and VoteVets, which looked at racial disparities in justified gun homicide rulings that involve a single shooter and victim who are strangers:

Researchers found that when white shooters kill black victims, 34% of the resulting homicides are deemed justifiable, while only 3.3% of deaths are ruled justifiable when the shooter is black and the victim is white. This discrepancy does not appear to be affected by the relative ages of or relationship between the shooters and victims. When an older white man shoots a younger black man with whom he had no prior relationship, the shooting is determined justifiable 49% of the time. Yet when the situation is reversed, and an older black man shoots a younger white man with whom he had no previous relationship, the homicide is only judged justifiable 8% of the time.

The Giles are understandably hurt by the broken justice system, but Phyllis said their “faith is strong.” In hopes of freeing her son, she launched a Change.org petition requesting that Florida Governor Rick Scott commute the sentence and that the Florida Clemency Board waive the stipulation that Giles must serve one-half of the minimum mandatory sentence before his case can be reviewed. At the time this article was published, she was about 2,000 signatures shy from the 50,000 goal.

What YOU Should Do: Let’s go a step further than signing the petition. We should also bombard the district attorney’s office with emails. We should flood the governor’s phone line with our calls to action. We need to ensure that Michael Giles does not start 2014 in a jail cell away from his young son and family. Just like the Trayvon Martin case, the black community should be just as outraged that an upstanding young man is in jail for no reason than being caught up in someone else’s brawl. We can save Giles’ life if we act.

Editor’s note: emPower magazine plans to keep readers updated weekly on the developments of this story.