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. 

Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union/Reuters/File
Marissa Alexander in a Duval County courtroom in Jacksonville, Florida, May 3, 2012.

A Florida mom sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot in what she said was self-defense will receive a new trial, on grounds that the jury was not properly instructed about how to apply the state's robust self-defense law that allows people who feel threatened to stand their ground. The case of Marissa Alexander, who is black, has raised concerns about the extent to which "stand your ground" laws allow biases to creep into jury decisions.

Ms. Alexander was found guilty in May 2012 of discharging a deadly weapon near her estranged husband and newborn baby. She countered that she had long been abused by her husband and had fired the shot as a warning for him not to get any closer to her during what was becoming a physical altercation. He was not injured.

Under Florida law, people have no duty to retreat from danger before fighting back, even with deadly force. But a judge ruled that the stand-your-ground law didn’t apply in Alexander’s case. After a jury found her guilty, the judge sentenced her to 20 years in prison, citing Florida’s tough minimum sentencing laws, even though Alexander had never before been in trouble with the law.

Critics have cited Alexander’s case as an example of unfair application of a stand-your-ground self-defense law, and they point to the acquittal of George Zimmerman this summer to buttress their charge. The half-white, half-Hispanic neighborhood watch captain was found not guilty of killing Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, after following the unarmed youth onto a dark neighborhood path in Sanford, Fla. Mr. Zimmerman, too, claimed self-defense.

(Interestingly, the same prosecutor who charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder, Angela Corey, led the prosecution against Alexander. "She put a round in the chamber, and she fired that shot out of anger, not fear," Ms. Corey told the Washington Post.)

In granting Alexander a new trial, a Florida appellate court did not directly address potential inequity in how the law was applied to a black woman versus the biracial Zimmerman. Rather, the ruling noted procedural problems in applying the law during her first trial – in particular, how the jury was instructed to interpret it.

In the Zimmerman case, the trial judge took special care to explain to the jury the self-defense doctrine, pointing out that it was incumbent upon the prosecution to prove that Zimmerman’s actions went beyond self-defense in order to convict him. In Alexander’s case, the appellate court found that the jury instructions instead put the onus on Alexander to prove that the shot was in self-defense – and that those instructions were wrong.

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

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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