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Florida mom to get new trial: Did court detect a 'stand your ground' inequity?

Marissa Alexander, serving time for firing a warning shot in what she said was self-defense, will get a new trial, a Florida appeals court rules. Her defenders asked why the state's 'stand your ground' law didn't apply to her. 

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"The burden never shifts to the defendant," the court said in its ruling handed down Thursday.

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The ruling is the latest in a slow process of judicial vetting of the new stand-your-ground laws, which is gradually establishing the legal standards for how such laws are to be applied, says one Florida law professor.

“Appeals courts are supposed to decide cases based on law, but they’re human beings, too, and they have been known to fudge” in favor of equity rather than mechanical application of criminal law, says Bob Dekle, a law professor at the University of Florida, in Gainesville. “That’s where the old legal maxim comes from, that says hard cases make bad law. But in this particular case, based on the jury instruction placing the burden of proof on the defendant, it would appear that a mechanical application of the law would bring you the result that the [appeals court] came up with.”

Stand-your-ground laws are intended to limit prosecutorial overreach in cases in which people clearly acted in self-defense. The laws generally allow a defendant to ask for a pretrial hearing in which a judge can inspect his or her self-defense claim. If the judge determines that self-defense was the motive, the defendant wins immunity from criminal and civil prosecution.

In Alexander’s case, her stand-your-ground claim was rejected because the trial judge found "insufficient evidence that the Defendant reasonably believed deadly force was needed to prevent death or great bodily harm to herself." The judge based that finding mainly on the fact that Alexander left the house to retrieve a gun from her car and then returned to the home – behavior that the judge deemed to be “inconsistent with a person who is in genuine fear for her life."

The laws have also been applied in ways no lawmaker intended – by gang members in the aftermath of gun fights, for example. Some studies show that such laws tend to favor white defendants over black defendants. In Florida, more-detailed case-by-case reviews show that blacks invoke the stand-your-ground law more often than white defendants do, and succeed more often in getting judges to agree with their self-defense claims.

Such laws, now on the books in 22 states, have come under intense scrutiny since the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin in February 2012. As the six-woman jury in the Zimmerman trial saw the law, what ultimately mattered was that Zimmerman believed he was at risk of serious injury. Those jurors did not resolve questions about whether Zimmerman should be held culpable for decisions he made leading up to the shooting, including following Trayvon despite the admonition of a nonemergency 911 operator not to do so.

Alexander, who has been in prison for three years, can now seek release on bond until her new trial. Some of her supporters are urging state prosecutors not to refile the charges against her, given the time she has already served. Before her trial, Alexander refused a plea deal that would have given her three years in jail.

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