The 1st District Court of Appeal on Thursday ordered a new trial for Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman sentenced to 20 years in prison for a shot fired during a 2010 domestic dispute in her home.
The appeals court found that a Duval County circuit judge erred in his jury instructions, though it supported the judge's ruling that Alexander could not plead immunity under Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law.
State Attorney Angela Corey's office said in a statement that prosecutors are "gratified that the court affirmed the Stand Your Ground ruling. This means the defendant will not have another Stand Your Ground hearing."
Corey's office described the jury-instruction issue as "a legal technicality," but it may turn out to be more than that.
Circuit Judge James H. Daniel instructed the jury that Alexander, now a 32-year-old mother of three, had to prove "beyond a reasonable doubt" that she feared an aggravated assault at the hands of her husband, Rico Gray. The jury convicted her of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, which carries a mandatory sentence of 20 years under Florida's 10-20-Life law.
The appeals court ruled that Daniel's instructions put too much of a burden on Alexander. "The defendants burden is only to raise a reasonable doubt concerning self-defense," a three-judge panel ruled. "The defendant does not have the burden to prove the victim guilty of the aggression defended against beyond a reasonable doubt."
Alexander testified that Gray had charged her "in a rage" and threatened to kill her. And Gray, 37, admitted in a deposition to beating and choking women, including Alexander. "I got five baby-mamas and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one," he said.
The case became notorious, partly for the 20-year sentence and partly because Alexander invoked Florida's Stand Your Ground law in her unsuccessful defense. But Corey, the special prosecutor in the Trayvon Martin killing, said the facts didnt support that claim.
Although Alexanders family and attorney have said that she fired a warning shot into the ceiling, Corey said a bullet hole in the wall showed the gun was aimed much lower -- toward her husband and two of his children. No one was hurt.
Corey told the Huffington Post last year that Alexander "was angry" when she fired the shot. "She was not in fear," Corey said.
But National Rifle Association lobbyist Marion Hammer, known as the mother of Florida's Stand Your Ground law, said that because Alexander was defending herself in her home, she should never have been charged.
"Prosecutors and judges manufactured that hearing," Hammer said. "And they set the hearing up so that the individual who is seeking immunity under the Castle Doctrine or Stand Your Ground law has the burden of proof -- in other words, the burden is on the person seeking immunity. That's wrong."
Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said Alexander shouldn't have been charged because she was a domestic-violence victim.
"I am very happy she will now get the chance to tell a new jury about how much danger she felt she was in that day," Smith said. "In order for people to understand her fear, they have to understand the pattern of repeated assaults and abuse against her by Rico Gray. My concern initially was that she was charged given the deposition of Rico Gray and his own admittance of hurting her that day, in the past, and that he had a history of abusing many other women."
Daniel was not persuaded that Alexander was in danger, writing that, "There is insufficient evidence that the defendant reasonably believed deadly force was needed to prevent death or great bodily harm to herself, another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
One of the appeals court judges, T. Kent Wetherell, agreed that the jury instructions were wrong but wrote in a separate opinion "to emphasize that the facts summarized in the majority opinion describe the shooting and the events leading up to it in the light most favorable to the appellant (Alexander). The jury also heard testimony that painted the appellant as the aggressor during the incident and directly contradicted (her) version of the events, including her all-important claim that she only fired the gun because her husband charged at her in a rage while threatening to kill her."
Alexander's case touched a nerve in Jacksonville, where the NAACP has been calling for a retrial since the 20-year sentence was handed down. The group's national president, Benjamin Todd Jealous, reacted to Thursday's ruling in a statement: "From the streets to the courthouse, race continues to influence the judicial process, and it certainly seemed to have played a role here." Alexander is African-American.
Prosecutors Rich Mantei and David Thompson told reporters that Alexander would be returned to the Duval County Jail for the retrial and, as before, would have no possibility of bond.
"The opinion doesn't say anything about the facts of the case," Thompson said. "We're going to make pretty much the same argument, because the facts haven't changed."
Alexander's attorneys said she was grateful for the decision and "expressed her continued confidence in the judicial systems ability to correct mistakes (and) her desire to be back with her children and family."