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Women And The Legal Bounds Of Self-Defense


In Jackson County, Ala., a woman named Brittany Smith shot and killed the man she says raped her. Now she's waiting to hear from a judge who will decide whether her case will be dismissed under the "stand your ground" law or move ahead with a murder trial. Brittany Smith's odds of making a successful self-defense claim are not good. That is what journalist Elizabeth Flock learned as she reported on Smith's story for The New Yorker. She joins me now.


ELIZABETH FLOCK: Thanks for having me.

CHANG: So before we get started, I just want to warn listeners that some people may find the details that we're going to be talking about very disturbing. Can you first tell me a little more about the night that Brittany Smith killed Todd Smith? And we should just mention the two are not related, even though they do have the same last name.

FLOCK: So Brittany Smith is a 32-year-old woman now, living in Stevenson, Ala. She had recently bought a puppy from a man named Todd Smith. On the night in question, he had called her, said he was cold and freezing in a park. Could she pick him up? She said no. Finally, she gave in. And then things sort of escalated from there.

When they got back to the house, they were giving the puppy a bath. And then Todd, who had quite a lot of meth in his system and also had been drinking, in Brittany's words, sort of flipped out. He, according to her, head-butted her, assaulted and raped her. A rape kit exam showed 33 wounds on her body. And then basically, after that, Brittany called her brother for help. He came over. She says that Todd attacked him and that she shot Todd in self-defense.

CHANG: And we should note that in the moment when Brittany fired the gun multiple times at Todd Smith, Todd was actually still choking her brother Chris, right?

FLOCK: Right. And a really crucial thing in self-defense law is whether the danger is imminent. So just because Todd, you know, may have raped her earlier that night doesn't mean that she can be justified in shooting him later. But the point is that if you're in fear for your life or in fear for someone else's life and especially in your own home, as she was, then you have justification to stand your ground and to defend yourself. And according to Brittany, Todd had told her multiple times that he wanted to kill her. So you know, many would say that that was clear self-defense.

CHANG: So despite her claims that this was all in self-defense, in March of 2018, Brittany was indicted for murder. She is determined to defend herself based on the "stand your ground" law in Alabama. And as we said before, that defense - it's not likely going to be successful in Alabama. Can you explain why that is?

FLOCK: I spoke to a number of researchers for this piece. And actually, a researcher at the University of Chicago, John Roman, looked into "stand your ground" and the impact it has had. And he found that actually, "stand your ground" has helped men and women overall since it's been applied in many states but that in some states, it's had little or zero effect - and one of those being Alabama, where this took place.

When the researcher looked at justified homicides in general, what he found is that men were 10% more likely to get justified homicide rulings than women. And in Alabama, the disparity was even greater. It was 25%...


FLOCK: ...Difference. And so men were far more often getting their homicides to be found justified than women were.

CHANG: So for Brittany Smith, where do things stand now?

FLOCK: Brittany had a "stand your ground" hearing over two days last week. Her defense tried to make the argument that this was clear self-defense, that she was in her own home, which is sort of the safest place a person can be, and that Todd Smith was told to leave. He did not leave. He unlawfully remained. And yet, the DA, throughout the hearing, tried to say that Brittany had not been raped, that Brittany was not in fear for her life.

You know, I don't have a clear picture of what will happen. The judge is still deliberating. And if Brittany loses her "stand your ground" hearing, she can appeal. But if she loses that appeal, which is rather likely, then she will go to trial for murder, facing a sentence of 20 years to life.

CHANG: Elizabeth Flock - her piece "How Far Can Abused Women Go To Protect Themselves?" is in the January 13 issue of The New Yorker. Thank you very much for your reporting.

FLOCK: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.