By Elizabeth Flock
https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-des ... nd-hearingIn the January 20, 2020, issue of The New Yorker, I wrote about Brittany Smith, a woman from Stevenson, Alabama, who, in January, 2018, shot and killed a man who she said had raped her, threatened her life in her home, and then attacked her brother after he arrived to help. The man, Todd Smith, who had recently sold Brittany a puppy, had been drinking, and had taken large amounts of methamphetamine. Yet within forty-eight hours of the shooting, Brittany was charged with murder. She went on to spend about four months in jail and six months in a mental institution, despite early attention to her case from the criminal-justice publication the Appeal. On January 14th and 15th, after my piece was published, Brittany finally had a Stand Your Ground hearing. Stand Your Ground is a statute that makes it legal to use lethal force to defend oneself against threats or perceived threats, with no duty to retreat. If Brittany won the hearing, she’d receive immunity from further prosecution. On Monday, she lost that hearing. She faces life in prison.
In a nineteen-page ruling, Judge Jenifer Holt wrote that Brittany’s use of deadly force was not demonstrably justified because she doubted that Brittany had reason to believe that Todd was about to use deadly physical force, assault, burglary, rape, or sodomy when she shot him. The judge wrote this despite the fact that Todd had already assaulted Brittany—a rape-kit evaluation found thirty-three wounds on her body—and despite the fact that Brittany said Todd had been choking her brother when she fired the gun.
Speaking from her home, in Stevenson, on Monday, Brittany told me that she was distressed but trying to remain hopeful. “I was prepared for a no, but I just feel like I’m not gonna get a fair trial here,” she said, and began to cry. “She saw the pictures of me; he almost beat me to death, he did rape me, and he tried to kill my brother, so how can she say this?”
The Stand Your Ground hearing, which was held in the Jackson County Courthouse in Scottsboro, Alabama—a county with more than double the state average of aggravated assaults per capita—began with testimony from Jeanine Suermann, a sexual-assault nurse examiner who saw Brittany the morning after the shooting. Suermann testified that Brittany’s wounds were consistent with having been bitten, strangled with two hands around her neck, and assaulted with “a lot of force.” The nurse listed bruises to Brittany’s neck, breasts, arms, legs, and head, and spoke repeatedly about the petechiae—discolored patches that can indicate the use of extreme pressure—that dotted Brittany’s hairline and neck. “She was probably hit multiple times and held down,” Suermann said. She testified that, during the examination, Brittany had described waking up “with no clothes in a puddle of urine” after having tried to fight back. “Scratched him everywhere I could,” Brittany told Suermann. “He was going to kill me.” At the conclusion of Suermann’s testimony, which lasted for more than two hours and included dozens of photographs of Brittany’s injuries, Jeff Poe, Todd’s cousin, left the courthouse with tears in his eyes. Poe had told me that, after Todd’s death, he’d considered having Brittany killed. But, after listening to the nurse’s testimony, Poe messaged me asking me to convey his apologies to Brittany and her family “for all this mess they have been through.” “It put me in a sick state of mind listening to all that today,” he wrote. “I’m sorry from the bottom of my heart.”