After a verdict of “not guilty” in the George Zimmerman trial sparked an outpouring of protests across the country, another name began to attract national attention: Marissa Alexander.
The Florida mother unsuccessfully claimed a “Stand Your Ground” defense in 2012 and received a shocking sentence of 20 years in prison for a confrontation with her lover during which she fired a gun -- but no one was killed or injured.
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A chorus of support for Alexander has slowly built since Zimmerman's acquittal last week and critics have lashed out at the state of Florida. On the surface, outrage over the state’s self-defense laws seems reasonable, but a deeper examination shows that there are some complexities in Alexander's case that cloud the issues with Florida’s justice system.
Marissa Alexander unsuccessfully claimed Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law as a defense against multiple counts of aggravated assault with a firearm. Alexander claimed she was protecting herself from an abusive husband.
According to court documents, Alexander got into an argument with her husband, Rico Gray, after Gray found text messages on Alexander’s phone to her ex-husband. Alexander claimed Gray initially prevented her from leaving the bathroom – where they were arguing – but at some point she was able to get by him and get away. Alexander fled the house, but when she got to her car in the garage, she realized she had left her keys inside. So she got her gun from the car and re-entered the house. Alexander told police the garage door was broken, and that’s why she didn’t exit that way. Police found no evidence proving the garage door wasn’t working properly.
When Alexander went back inside, she claimed Gray continued to threaten her so she fired a “warning shot” through the house -- which she fired in the direction of Gray, with his children nearby.
Alexander was convicted on multiple counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. A jury found the Jacksonville, Florida, woman guilty in just 12 minutes.
Alexander’s own actions were ultimately used against her self-defense claim. While she was out on bail, awaiting trial on her aggravated assault charges, Alexander was arrested for domestic battery against Gray. Although her bail contract specifically prohibited any contact between her and Gray, Alexander went to her husband’s house -- where she wasn’t living at the time -- and after an altercation, he ultimately called police.
When the police contacted Alexander about the incident, she first said she didn’t know what they were talking about, and she hadn’t been at the house, but later she stated that Gray attacked her because she wouldn’t stay with him overnight. Alexander never called police and later stated she was scared. According to police reports, Alexander had no injuries, but Gray had a bloody swollen eye and told police Alexander had punched him.
In Gray’s initial deposition to police, he said he would have hit Alexander if she had really tried to threaten him, in an effort to help her and get her potential sentence reduced. Alexander and Gray collaborated on that story while she awaited trial, but Gray later admitted that it wasn’t true and that she really did threaten him and did fire a shot at him.
In 2009, Alexander filed charges against Gray, claiming he tried to choke her, but she went to the Florida District Attorney’s Office and said that wasn’t really what happened and then all charges were dropped. According Richard Kuritz, attorney for Gray and his two children, Gray has never been convicted of any violent act toward Alexander. Kuritz said the only time Gray has been arrested for domestic violence was an incident involving his brother and those charges were also dropped.
The 'warning shot': Out of fear ... or anger?
Alexander stated she did not attempt to exit the house through any other door and said it was her right to stay and stand her ground in her own defense.
The problem with her defense was “she chose to come back in the house,” said Kuritz.
Alexander said when Gray threatened her, she felt her life was in danger, so she shot a “warning shot” in his direction, with his kids just around the wall behind him.
“A warning shot is when you shoot into the air, you shoot down on the ground, you don’t shoot straight at somebody 6 feet off the ground,” said Kuritz, in an interview with HLN’s Vinnie Politan on “ HLN After Dark.” “[The shot] was at eye level with my client, right above his 12-year-old. When you have a 12-year-old child who testified to a jury that ‘I thought I was fixin’ to die,’ I’m sorry that is not a misdemeanor…When you shoot a gun that puts a 12-year-old child in fear for his life, that changes things and I think it was prosecuted appropriately.”
Considering Alexander’s actions leading up to firing the gun, on top of her decision to voluntarily contact Gray while awaiting trial, the judge rejected the use of “Stand Your Ground.”
Alexander would have had to prove there was a reasonable fear of severe bodily harm in order to prove the use of the “Stand Your Ground” law, however her actions may not have supported the idea that she had no other option than to shoot at Gray. Plus, legal experts have questioned why she would only fire a “warning shot” if she felt the use of deadly force was necessary. Alexander also never called police after the incident, which could have also been used against her claim that she feared for her life, especially when a judge considered that Alexander voluntarily continued to visit Gray’s home after she agreed to the no-contact restriction in her bail contract.
'Stand Your Ground' explained
The “Stand Your Ground” doctrine in can be found in Florida Statute § 776.013(3) (2012). Here are some key parts of the legislation:
§ 776.013. Home protection; use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm
(3) A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be 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 or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
The “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida essentially gives individuals the right to protect themselves or others from serious bodily harm or death, and it gives them the right to use deadly force if no other non-lethal options are available. Most states give people this right within their own home, but Florida permits individuals to stand their ground anywhere they have a right to be without requiring them to retreat first.
In Florida, you can use deadly force anywhere as long as you:
--Are not engaged in an unlawful activity
--Are being attacked in a place you have a right to be
--Reasonably believe that your life and safety is in danger as a result of an overt act or perceived threat committed by someone else toward you.
A “Stand Your Ground” hearing works differently than other hearings, requiring the defendant to prove he or she was entitled to use deadly force. The defense must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the person was entitled to use the force. So essentially they must prove the defendant’s innocence.
The judge in Alexander’s case found it wasn’t proven that the law applied to her circumstance. Alexander even said herself that she simply fired a “warning shot,” which some experts say disputes the idea that she was in fear for her life. The judge stated it appeared Alexander fired the shot out of anger, not fear.
Florida’s “ 10-20-Life” law is what landed Alexander in prison for 20 years.
Alexander was charged with multiple counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Knowing the mandatory sentencing for that particular charge, state prosecutors offered her a plea deal of only three years in prison, but Alexander chose to let a jury of her peers decide her fate. This is where Florida’s sentencing laws come into play and leave essentially no room for a judge to use his or her own discretion regarding sentencing when a defendant is convicted of particular crimes.
Florida’s “10-20-Life” law requires courts to impose a minimum of 10 years, 20 years or 25 years to life in prison for certain felony convictions involving the use or attempted use of a firearm or other deadly weapon. So in the case of aggravated assault with a firearm, the court must impose the mandatory minimum sentence that is already set out by law – 20 years.
According to Florida law, aggravated assault is an assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill; or, with intent to commit a felony.
“As far as the sentence is concerned, she was charged with a 20-minimum mandatory [crime], and they offered her a deal to take the three [years], she said no,” Kuritz told Politan. “It’s not being penalized for going to trial. You go to trial and that’s what your charge is that you can be convicted of, you know that before you go. It’s not being penalized for going to trial, you had an opportunity to choose less time, chose not to, you rolled the dice, you lost, and unfortunately it’s 20 years,” Kuritz said.
“I hate the ’10-20-Life’ statute, but that’s a question for the legislature, not Angela Corey and not the judge in this case,” Kuritz added.
It took a jury of her peers only 12 minutes to find Alexander guilty on three counts of aggravated assault after firing a shot toward her husband and his two children.
“I’m a former prosecutor and a criminal defense lawyer now, a 12-minute verdict means that case was so overwhelming,” Kuritz said. “The defense attorney and [Alexander] should have realized what they were up against and taken the three-year deal. If the jury comes back in 12 minutes, that’s a slam-dunk. You have no defense. There was nothing for them to discuss.”
Whether she deserved 20 years in prison wasn’t up to the jury to decide. The jury’s job is not to determine a defendant’s punishment, but only to find him or her guilty or not guilty of the charges presented in court. Punishment is set by law.
In Florida’s case, harsh gun laws mean harsh sentences, whether or not they fit the individual circumstance.