Politics

Another Case Involving a Self-Defense Claim Roils a Florida Community

By: Margie Menzel News Service of Florida | Posted: May 14, 2012 3:55 AM
As Florida reviews its "Stand Your Ground" law in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing, Marissa Alexander on Friday received a 20-year sentence for firing a shot in what she claims was self-defense and her backers say was a case of her standing her ground.

Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, was sentenced in Jacksonville under a mandatory minimum law for firing one shot in the direction of a spouse with a record of domestic violence in a 2010 dispute.

A judge had rejected Alexander’s "Stand Your Ground" defense, saying she could have escaped instead of firing. Florida courts have often recognized a common law doctrine that says when someone is acting in self-defense in their home, they don't have a duty to retreat to first.

Alexander's case has a twist from the usual "Stand Your Ground" claim: she didn't shoot her spouse. She fired, but didn't hit him.

Her case has drawn immense attention, and gained even more notoriety than it likely otherwise could have as the state has been gripped by a new debate over self-defense laws in the wake of the Martin shooting earlier this year.

"If we want to protect self-defense in Florida, we can't have a 20-year mandatory minimum hanging over the heads of people who fire warning shots instead of just killing their attacker," said Greg Newburn, Florida project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.

Newburn will attend the first public hearing of the task force appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to review the "Stand Your Ground" law on June 12 in Sanford, where 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer. The acknowledged shooter, George Zimmerman, claimed self-defense, but is now facing second-degree murder charges.

Angela Corey, the special prosecutor handling the Martin killing, will obviously fight any attempt to use the "Stand Your Ground" defense in that case. And she said it doesn't apply to Alexander, either. Her office had offered a plea bargain of three years, but Alexander rejected it, hoping to convince a jury she had been in fear for her life.

"She got two shots at her self-defense theory," Corey told the Huffington Post on Thursday. "Neither a judge nor a jury bought it."

"It's a pattern we see all across the state," Newburn said. "[Defendants] turn down a plea deal because they think they're innocent. ... If you're guilty and you know it, you take the plea."

In Friday's sentencing, Judge James Daniel said he had no choice under state law but to give Alexander the 20-year sentence.

"Under the state's 10-to-20-to-life law, a conviction for aggravated assault where a firearm has been discharged carries a minimum and maximum sentence of 20 years without regard to any extenuating or mitigating circumstances that may be present, such as those in this case," he said.

Now Alexander's options are few. She can appeal, which Newburn says she will do. And the governor and Cabinet can grant her clemency – that is, if one of the members of the clemency board can bring up her case, because Alexander herself can't apply until she's served 10 years, or half her sentence.

In court Friday, Corey said Alexander's shot could have hit her husband or his children. She told the Huffington Post that Alexander "was angry" when she fired the shot. "She was not in fear."

That's a distinction that Linda Osmundson, director of Community Action Stops Abuse, the domestic violence shelter in St. Petersburg, finds difficult to draw.

"The thing I see they're hanging their hat on is that she was angry," Osmundson said. "Well, wouldn't you be angry if someone was beating you up?"

In the late 1980s, Osmundson was instrumental in Florida's establishing the possibility of executive clemency for battered women who kill their abusers. About 30 women went free over the next 15 years as a result.

"Most of the women killed their abusers in self-defense because they thought they were going to die, or their child was going to die," Osmundson said. "But almost all those women got life sentences."

The "Stand Your Ground" law was passed in 2005.

Alexander's now ex-husband, Rico Gray, 36, has been arrested twice for domestic battery, and Alexander had filed an injunction against him, which was active on the night that landed her in jail. She, too, has been charged with domestic battery, in an assault on Gray four months after the shooting. Alexander pleaded no contest to that charge after her trial in March and was sentenced to time served.

Newburn said domestic violence is a key factor in Alexander's case.

"I think the background of abuse is relevant in terms of her state of mind when she fired the weapon," he said. "There's nothing mutually exclusive about anger and fear."

Meanwhile, Corey and Alexander’s supporters continue to clash in the national media, which is now drawn to another Florida controversy over its "Stand Your Ground" law. Alexander's family has launched a petition drive and created a Web page to solicit defense funds.

Her backers have also solicited help from the governor – noting that he got involved in the criminal case involving Zimmerman and Martin, so he could also intervene in the Alexander case.

Corey said Alexander’s family and attorneys are spreading "misinformation" about her having been a victim who acted in self-defense.

"If there was a way to prosecute [Alexander’s family] for what they are doing, I would," Corey said.

Meanwhile, Jacksonville Congresswoman Corrine Brown is calling Alexander's case a product of "institutional racism." She said she cannot locate a "Stand Your Ground case" in her area where an African-American has been the beneficiary of the law. Alexander is a black woman.

Brown will be calling for a national study by the U.S. Department of Justice or another entity to determine whether there are racial disparities in the application of the "Stand Your Ground" defense.

And domestic violence advocates like Osmundson say the criminal justice system is biased against women who fight back.

"It's not feminine for women to defend themselves," she said. "In the minds of most people, women ought to be protected, not protect themselves."

"Ms. Alexander exhibited great courage and restraint in protecting herself while also not killing anyone," said Rita Smith, director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "Where is the justice for battered women in Florida?"

Comments (7)

Eldon Pittman
9:05AM MAY 17TH 2012
Ironic that the woman that everyone is pinning their hopes on in the Martin case was also the Prosecutor in this case. Also, people seem to skim over the fact that Ms Alexander pleaded "No contest" to assualt charges 4 months after this incident. If she was so afraid of him..why did she return to him? People are so quick to yell "racism"...like the boy who cried "wolf"!
Jake
5:00AM MAY 16TH 2012
I was just reading about the law in Baker's new edition of Glanville Williams' Textbook of Criminal Law (Sweet & Maxwell, 2012) pages 728-729 where it refers to Florida's laws as a licence to kill. The law clearly needs to be changed, because the traditional law of self-defense is more than enough to protect on in this situation. According to the Williams book, the Europeans countries, including England, balance the right to defend one's dwelling against the fundamental right to life; the right to life is too easily dismissed too often in the United States.
Jake
4:58AM MAY 16TH 2012
I was just reading about the law in Baker new edition of Glanville Williams' Textbook of Criminal Law (Sweet & Maxwell, 2012) pages 728-729 where it refers to Florida's laws as a licence to kill. The law clearly needs changed, because the traditional law of self-defense is more than enough to protect on in this situation. According to the Williams book, the European balance the right to defend one's dwelling against the fundamental right to life; the right to life is too easily dismissed too often in the United States.
The Official Comment
2:24PM MAY 15TH 2012
How do you negotiate with racists who are in control? How can you speak sense into closed minds even when the truth is in plain view? The blinders of racism are so far rooted in the heart. Racism justifies injustice.
James Hanes
11:39AM MAY 14TH 2012
This is clearly a case where another liberal, activist judge, who has no way of knowing what the woman felt or thought, but who does not agree with the Stand Your Ground Law, nor with previous Florida law governing self defense in one's own home, will sentence an abused woman to years of confinement at Taxpayer expense. I hope that the NRA and other organizations come to the poor woman's aid. This has little to nothing to do with the Trayvon Martin case, except that it plays into the hands of the anti Second Amendment lobby.
Frank
9:37PM MAY 14TH 2012
Yes, clearly a judge from the conservative Jacksonville area who hands out a 20-year harsh sentence consistent with state law must be another liberal, activist judge.

And you base this on what known facts about the man - or is this simply a quirky feeling tirade from another Mad Hatter?

(Oh, and a side note - I'll show you my Golden Eagle of the NRA belt buckle and you can show me yours, but I sincerely doubt you have one) . . . .
Frank
9:45AM MAY 14TH 2012
Yes, our justice system is blind.

In this case, that apparently means blind to women, blind to minorities, blind to the abused.

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