Woman's Appeal Hinges on Court's 'Stand Your Ground' Ruling
Around the State
Members of the Florida Cabinet said Tuesday it's too soon to consider a pardon for Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a shot into a wall during a domestic dispute.
But an appeals court will decide whether Alexander should have been able to use a Stand Your Ground defense to fight the charge.
Alexander, a 32-year-old mother of three, was sentenced last year under Florida's "10-20-Life" mandatory-minimum law.
She argued that the Stand Your Ground self-defense law should apply, but a judge ruled against her because she ran to the garage for her gun and returned with it instead of escaping. A jury later found her guilty -- in 12 minutes -- of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
According to filings at the 1st District of Appeal in Tallahassee, Alexander's attorneys contend that the trial court erred in denying Alexander's pretrial motion for immunity based on Stand Your Ground. They wrote that due to the history of domestic violence in the relationship with her husband, Rico Gray, Alexander had reason to fear bodily harm and had no duty to retreat.
They also argued that the trial court’s instruction to the jury "erroneously shifted the burden of proof, requiring that Alexander prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was in danger of imminent harm in order to invoke self-defense," according to the motion filed last November.
Alexander's case drew enormous attention when she was sentenced in May 2012. It returned to the spotlight last month, when a Sanford jury acquitted George Zimmerman of second-degree murder in the death of Trayvon Martin.
Zimmerman did not use a Stand Your Ground defense, but the case has sparked widespread debate about the law. Approved in 2005, the law says a person who is not doing anything illegal and gets attacked "has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself."
Alexander's case also has become part of a sit-in at the state Capitol, where a group called the Dream Defenders has occupied Gov. Rick Scott's waiting area, demanding a special legislative session on the Stand Your Ground law. Tuesday marked the third week of the sit-in.
Members of the Dream Defenders have followed Alexander's case, and their political director, Ciara Taylor of Jacksonville, was in court when Alexander was sentenced.
One good thing to come out of the verdict, Taylor said Tuesday, is the need to explore cases like Alexander's -- "cases involving the black-and-white … disparity within using Stand Your Ground." She also said it's important "to talk about domestic violence against women in this country."
On Monday, state Sen. Dwight Bullard, D-Miami, wrote to Scott and the Cabinet, asking them to pardon Alexander when they next sit as the clemency board. Bullard noted that Alexander had reason to fear because her husband had battered her in the past.
Scott and Cabinet members could take up Bullard's call for a pardon for Alexander on Sept. 25, when the clemency board meets. But on Tuesday, they were noncommittal. A spokeswoman for Attorney General Pam Bondi said that because Bondi's office is representing the prosecution in Alexander's criminal appeal, "it would not be appropriate to discuss clemency-related matters until the court has made a determination regarding the disposition of the criminal appeal."
The appeal is also based on what Alexander's attorneys argue are two additional errors by the trial court: denying her the right to consult her attorney during the single overnight recess of her two-day trial, and giving the standard jury instruction on the use of force.
"The instruction given effectively negated Alexander’s sole defense -- that is, self-defense -- by erroneously stating that an injury to the victim was a prerequisite to successfully invoking self-defense," the motion said.
"She had every right to be afraid and every right to defend herself," said Rita Smith, executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "It is often the case that when a battered woman fights back and protects herself, the full force of the law comes down on her."