A former U.S. airman is currently sitting in a Florida prison for what his supporters argue was a simple act of self-defense.
Just two years into a 25-year sentence, he joins a list of cases that have drawn national attention to the Sunshine State’s sentencing and gun laws. Encouraged by the activity, his family is hoping to stir up interest in his case and is currently petitioning Florida’s governor for clemency.
In the spring of 2010, 26-year-old Michael Giles was on active duty with the Unites States Air Force and stationed in Tampa. The married father of three had recently finished two tours in the Middle East and was looking forward to a career in the military, says his family. One night in February, a friend invited Giles to party at a Tallahassee nightclub. Shorty after arriving, a fight broke out among members of fraternities from nearby Florida A&M University.
According to court documents, an argument quickly escalated into a brawl involving 30 to 40 young men.
Giles reportedly was not involved in the melee but, separated from his friends, went outside to the car where he had a gun, for which he had a concealed carry permit. Giles put the weapon in his pants pocket and searched the crowd for his friends. Suddenly, he says, someone from the crowd punched him. Knocked to the ground and in fear for his life, Giles says he pulled out the gun and fired one shot into the leg of his alleged attacker.
Three men were injured, wounded by bullet fragments. Giles was immediately arrested and charged with second-degree attempted murder.
Aside from his having no criminal background, Giles’ supporters argue that he was merely defending himself from an unprovoked attack. In fact, when testifying in the case, the man who punched Giles, Courtney Thrower, admitted that the assault was random. “The first person I get to I’m going to hit,” he remembered thinking.
Other witnesses testified that Thrower, having heard of an attack on one of his fraternity brothers, was outside of the nightclub pacing with his fists clenched and, in the middle of the brawl, “leapfrogged” from the crowd to hit Giles. Despite all of that, according to the Florida state prosecutors, Giles had no right to use deadly force that night.
“The evidence is clear here that the act of pointing a gun into a group of people, even if you’re not specifically deciding to kill them, is a crime,” said Assistant State Attorney Jack Campbell in his closing statements during the trial. “There is no self-defense that is applicable based on the evidence that’s before the jury.”
The defense argued, however, that Giles was justified in using deadly force if he reasonably believed that such force was necessary to prevent “imminent death or great bodily harm” to himself.
“He doesn’t have to think he’s going to get killed, even though people looking in from the outside thought someone could get killed,” said defense attorney Don Pumphrey in his closing. “If the defendant was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, where he had a right to stand, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.”
The jury disagreed however and Giles was ultimately convicted in August of 2011 of the lesser charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, a crime that comes with a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty years in the state of Florida. It is the same sentence Marissa Alexander received in her controversial case – a case recently awarded a new trial on appeal.
“10-20-Life” (Florida Statute 775.087) is a controversial Florida law under which Giles and Alexander were sentenced. It confers a minimum sentence of 10 years for a felony conviction where a firearm is merely brandishing. Firing the gun adds another 10 years – even if no one was hit, as was the case with Alexander. And, if someone is hit, the shooter necessarily faces 25 years to life in prison.
“Frankly, I think the 25-year mandatory is overly harsh on the facts of this case, but that’s what the law requires I do and I intend to follow the law,” said Judge James C. Hankinson when issuing Giles’ verdict
Given the facts of the case, Giles’ supporters – led in an effort by his parents – are hoping to have his case reevaluated by the state. His mother, Phyllis Giles, has created an online petition through Change.org asking Florida Governor Rick Scott for executive clemency for her son. She claims that not only do the facts of the case show that Michael was reasonably defending himself, but that his lawyer pressured him against taking the stand and evoking a “Stand-Your-Ground” defense.
Giles’ new defense attorney is currently in the process of filing a motion for post-conviction relief, claiming that he received ineffective assistance of counsel and, so far, the petition for clemency has received more than 56,000 signatures.
Florida State Senator Dwight Bullard (D-39) has also written a letter to Gov. Scott asking him to commute Giles’ sentence. According to a statement to theGrio from Bullard’s office, he has received no response from the governor.
“As of yet our office has heard nothing from Gov. Scott’s office. His office has time and again proven non-responsive on issues related to injustice,” Bullard said in a statement to theGrio. “He subsequently has turned a definitive blind eye to high[-]profile plights of injustice involving African-Americans. His lack of intervention on behalf of Marissa Alexander and lack of compassion for the killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis have not gone unnoticed by Black Floridians – and all Floridians. So it comes as no surprise that he has been noticeably absent in the case of Michael Giles. Nonetheless I will continue pressing his office and others to take notice of cases like Mr. Giles, Ms. Alexander and others.”
In response, John Tupps, deputy press secretary for Governor Scott, told theGrio, “Florida is at a 42-year low in its crime rate, and Governor Scott works every day to ensure that Florida families are kept safe and have the opportunity to live the American Dream.”
Michael Giles supporters believe that’s not enough and are asking for direct action on his behalf. Ultimately, Phyllis Giles says she would like the state to take into consideration her son’s character and the extraordinary circumstance he was in the night of the shooting.
“Michael is a very caring person, never been in trouble, never been arrested. He’s a family man. We’re a bible-based family and both my husband and I are retired military,” she says. “We believe that we have raised a good man, so we don’t understand how the state of Florida could sentence him to 25 years in prison for defending himself. Michael is a good man. He is honest. He is hard working and, through all of this, he is our rock and confidence we need to keep fighting.”
Follow Donovan X. Ramsey at @iDXR