MSNBC Analysts Cite Shoddy Tampa Bay Times Racism Statistics to Dump on Stand Your Ground Laws

July 30th, 2013 11:00 PM

On Thursday morning, MSNBC guest host Mara Schiavocampo devoted a segment of the show to discussing the story of Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot into a wall at the home of her ex-husband. She brought on Joy-Ann Reid, editor and blogger, to discuss the comparability of this case to the Trayvon Martin case as well as implications that the Alexander case sentencing could attest to “a racial disparity in how the lies are applied.” [Link to the audio here]

Schiavocampo then introduced a shoddy Tampa Bay Times report that she said supported these claims of “racial imbalance” including two sets of statistics from the report about the rate of convictions based on the race of the victim and defendant respectively. The first set reported that when there was a black victim, the accused faced no penalty 73% of the time while the same was true only 59% of the time when the victim was white. The second statistic showed that, in fatal cases, black defendants went free 66% of the time while white defendants went free in 61% of cases.

In reference to the latter set of statistics, instead of admitting that the numbers showed no recognizable evidence of racial disparity, Reid simply discredited the findings in saying:

REID:  Well, that second set of statistics about the race of the shooter has to do with the fact that the vast majority of shootings of murders happen within the same race. So when a white person is killed it's most often by someone who is white. When a black person is killed it's most often by someone who is black. That second set of statistics is less meaningful.

She made this statement to dismiss the statistic that disproved the point she was trying to make so that she could focus her airtime on the statistic that made it seem that the courts did not care about victims if they were black by letting the defendant in the case go free more than if the victim was white. A stat that she tried to use as evidence that there is a “racial disparity in stand your ground.”

However, her statements beg the question of why it should matter that most violent crime takes place within the same race. Reid tried to argue that these statistics were of minimal importance because those black and white defendants were killing people of the same race, but that does not change the fact that those stats show no evidence of racial bias. She is only trying to find a racial issue where one does not exist.

Additionally, when I heard this report I immediately went to the Tampa Bay Times website and found the cited report in order to see its conclusions for myself and check its accuracy if need be. On their site, the paper has compiled a list of over 200 stand your ground type cases going back to 2005 that it used to gather their statistics. The table provides basic information about each case in addition to links to short descriptions of the circumstances and personal information of each person involved.

However, I quickly found that the report contained a number of inconsistencies if not outright mistakes in reporting the races of involved parties. For example, the reporters who compiled the list showed an inconsistency in how to differentiate between white non-Hispanics and those with a Hispanic ethnicity. About half the time, people who were of Hispanic descent were referred to as Hispanic while the rest of the time they were simply listed as white. This mistake served to through off the statistics for both groups. For my accounting, I differentiated between white-Hispanics and white non-Hispanics.

There were even a few examples of the paper mistakenly listing a person as black when he was white or vice versa.  The report listed Sujaye E. Henry as a white victim of a homicide, but a simple Google search rendered a Miami police report complete with a picture of Sujaye which listed him as a black male. In another case, the Times reported that a white man by the name of Brian Boardway had injured his white mother and killed his black stepfather. However, after speaking with the reporter that the Times had cited, Stephen Hudak, he told me that he was positive that everyone in the case was white.

Clearly, this report was done without a high dedication to consistency or even accuracy and should have been evaluated by MSNBC before being used on air. Although it is understandable that television networks do not always have the time to evaluate sources during breaking news, Marissa Alexander was convicted in May of 2012 and the case study was published in June of the same year. MSNBC had plenty of time to check the case, but did not care to see what it actually showed.

Through my own research into the cases that are cited in the Times report, I have discovered that this case study does not prove a racial disparity in the application of stand your ground laws the way that MSNBC hoped that it would have. After correcting all of the report’s inconsistencies, I found that the second statistic about fatal cases as accurate, but that the first was not. Instead of 73% and 59%, I found that in cases with a black victim the defendant went free 78% of the time while only 60% went free when the victim was white.

Wait! This shows an even greater disparity between the races. So there is institutionalized racism, and courts do not care about black victims.

While it is true that a disparity in these statistics racially, this stat does not prove that there is racism in the justice system by any stretch of the imagination. I also calculated the percentage of the accused that went free in all cases along racial lines and found that the numbers where quite comparable to the other percentage I calculated. Only 65% of white defendants faced no penalty while 75% of blacks went free when accused. This means that more white people who invoked the stand your ground defense received a penalty than blacks who did the same.

Basically, this data proves that the history of stand your stand ground cases gives no factual basis to the frequent claims by the liberal media of institutionalized racism in the implementation of these laws.

In addition to MSNBC’s unwillingness to investigate a report for accuracy or even report on all of its findings, the network also failed to mention all relevant facts about the Marissa Alexander case. Reid and Schiavocampo both chose to focus on the story that it must be hard for Alexander, as a mother, to not be able to see her 3 year old daughter, who was only a few weeks old when her mother was arrested. Reid also commented that it was a common sense stand your ground case because her husband, Rico Gray, who she fired at had been abusive in the past.

However, neither journalist mentioned the fact that after Alexander married Gray a mere six months after the abuse had taken place, nor did they mention Gray’s side of the story that Alexander was the aggressor that made the situation physically violent after he questioned her about texts with her ex-husband. The two also did not report that while out on bail, Alexander assaulted Gray after he refused to let her stay at his house giving him a swollen and bloodied eye. Alexander pled no contest to the domestic battery charge.

Despite these oversights, the duo and their researchers at MSNBC should have done their homework before trying to use this case as an example of racism in the application of stand your ground laws. It seems to have become a pattern among MSNBC hosts to only mention cases that further their own presuppositions instead of considering all the facts.

Reid and Schiavocampo have joined All In host Chris Hayes in failing to mention the case of a Florida man by the name of Orville Lee Wollard when discussing Marissa Alexander. Wollard was also prosecuted after firing a warning shot that hurt no one and was sentenced to 20 years too. In his case, Wollard fired the warning shot at his daughter’s boyfriend, Austin O’Hara, after the young man had been verbally abusive to his daughter and punched a hole in a wall. Both cases seem very similar; each defendant were even given and refused similar plea deals to help them avoid the 20 year sentence.

However, MSNBC has failed to mention Wollard’s case either because their researchers are painfully inept or, more likely, because the fact that Wollard is white would ruin their propositions of racism in the justice system. To acknowledge this case and fairly report the news in general would mean that MSNBC would have to admit that they have basically fabricated their claims of racism, something no one expects them to do anytime soon.

For reference, the transcript of Reid’s appearance is provided below:

SCHIAVOCAMPO: Now, you spoke to her first husband and her 3-year-old just turned 3 this week her youngest child. I can't imagine your child celebrating a 3rd birthday and you're in prison for that. How is she doing? What has her ex-husband told you about how she is doing in the face of everything she is dealing with right now?

REID: Well, Lincoln Alexander, who is the father of her two older children, they were previously married and he's still a big supporter of her said her spirits are relatively high because the public support and because of the close family support. She's still able to see her two older children not the two children who were in the home, who are Rico Gray’s children, her ex-husband, but her two older kids. But she hasn't had any contact at all with her daughter who just turned 3 years old on Tuesday because Rico Gray, her former husband, has full custody of the child and there have been issues even with the family being able to see the child. So she's really yearning for that bond with her daughter that she really just hasn't been able to form at all, ‘cause you have to remember the child was less than a year old, few months old when this incident took place. She's basically been incarcerated the whole time.

SCHIAVOCAMPO: As a mother that has got to be so difficult. And going back to the stand your ground laws, you know last year the Tampa Bay Times did an analysis and found some evidence to support claims there's racial imbalance in how those are applied. With a black victim 73% of defendants faced no penalty. But with a white victim 59% faced no penalty. But when the paper focused on the race of the killer in fatal cases black defendants went free 66% of the time compared to whites who went free 61% of the time. There are a lot of statistics about here, a lot of study on this. What do you think the numbers tell us about how these laws are applied racially?

REID: Right, well that second set of statistics about the race of the shooter has to do with the fact that the vast majority of shootings of murders happen within the same race. So when a white person is killed it's most often by someone who is white. When a black person is killed it's most often by someone who is black. That second set of statistics is less meaningful.

But the fact that the race of the deceased being African-American means you'll get off I think does speak to a racial disparity in stand your ground and the other big issue with stand your ground is that if you shoot someone and they live you are less likely to be availed the defense like the Marissa Alexander case. If you shoot someone and they die, you actually have a very good chance of getting off regardless of the circumstances of the shooting, regardless of whether you started the altercation. There have been cases in Florida where someone has chased down the decedent, shot them while the person was on the ground and still gotten off on stand your ground because the person died. So it is in a sense for critics of it, they say Stand your ground is a shoot to kill law. It encourages a fatal shot and less -- it encourages you to be less measured if you have a gun because if you shoot that person and they die you are very likely to get off.

SCHIAVOCAMPO: And that exactly what a lot of critics are worried about, that it is making Streets less safe and not more safe.

REID: Exactly.