Marissa Alexander, whose case has been compared with George Zimmerman’s as an example of the injustice of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, is entitled to a new trial because the trial judge improperly instructed the jury on self-defense, a Florida appeals court ruled yesterday.
To many in the black community, Alexander became a symbol of Florida’s broken legal system after she was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot in the ceiling after her estranged husband began assaulting her during an argument. Zimmerman walked free after killing an unarmed 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin.
In a decision written by Judge Robert Benton of the 1st District Court of Appeal, the three-judge appellate panel ruled that Alexander deserves a new trial because the judge handling her case did not properly instruct the jury regarding what is needed to prove self-defense.
Benton said the instructions constituted a “fundamental error” by requiring Alexander to prove self-defense “beyond a reasonable doubt,” while in reality the prosecution had the burden to prove that Alexander herself was guilty of aggravated assault.
“Because the jury instructions on self-defense were fundamental error, we reverse” the conviction, the appellate panel said.
But the panel also said the trial judge was right to block Alexander from using the state’s “stand your ground” law to defend her actions.
Alexander, 33 and the mother of three, was notified by phone of the panel’s ruling, according to defense attorney Bruce Zimet.
“Marissa was ecstatic and obviously she’s incredibly thankful and wants to get back with her family,” Zimet told CNN.
“This is a welcome development in a case that represents the double standards in our justice system,” NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous said in a statement. “From the streets to the court house, race continues to influence the judicial process, and it certainly seemed to have played a role here.”
“We are heartened to hear that this decision has been made, and we are hopeful that accessibility to a fair trial will continue for Marissa,” stated NAACP Florida State Conference President Adora Obi Nweze. “We have so many cases of injustice in Florida, and while we only hear about one or two, there are so many more that go unreported. We will continue fighting for all the other Marissa Alexanders out there.”
These are the details of her case: On Aug. 1, 2010, just nine days after giving birth, Alexander went to the home she previously shared with her estranged husband Rico Gray to retrieve the rest of her clothes because she thought he was gone. Though they just had a baby together, Alexander, who worked for a payroll software company, had a restraining order against Gray.
The two had an argument and Alexander said she feared for her life, so she went to her vehicle to get the gun she legally owned, went back inside and ended up firing a shot into the wall, which ricocheted into the ceiling.
During the trial, Gray claimed that she was the aggressor, and that he had begged her to put away the weapon.
Alexander tried to use the “stand your ground” self-defense claim, but the trial judge threw it out, noting that Alexander could have run out of the house to escape her husband but instead retrieved the gun and went back inside. Prosecutors offered Alexander a plea deal that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence, but Alexander chose to go to trial.
It took the jury just 12 minutes to convict her. During Alexander’s sentencing in May, Judge James Daniel said he had no choice but to sentence her to 20 years.
“Under the state’s 10-20-life law, a conviction for aggravated assault where a firearm has been discharged carries a minimum and maximum sentence of 20 years without regarding to any extenuating or mitigating circumstances that may be present, such as those in this case,” Daniel said.
State Attorney Angela Corey, the special prosecutor who decided to bring charges against Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, has stood by the handling of Alexander’s case, saying she believes Alexander aimed the gun at Gray and his two sons and that the bullet could have ricocheted and hit any of them.
Jackelyn Barnard, a spokeswoman for Corey, said Alexander’s conviction was reversed on a legal technicality and that the office was gratified that the “stand your ground” ruling was upheld.