A Florida court has granted a new trial to a woman sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot during an altercation with her abusive husband.
Marissa Alexander’s sentence sparked national outrage over the perverse outcomes from mandatory minimum sentences and Stand Your Ground laws. A judge rejected Alexander’s Stand Your Ground argument that she was justified in firing the warning shot to protect herself. She was then convicted by a jury of aggravated assault, and sentenced to Florida’s mandatory minimum 20-year prison term for that offense. She is serving that sentence now.
In a decision issued Thursday, an appeals panel upheld the judge’s Stand Your Ground decision, but held that the instructions to the jury on self-defense were improper. The instructions wrongly stated that Alexander had to prove her fear of aggravated battery beyond a reasonable doubt, and improperly included an instruction about injury when there definitively was no injury caused by Alexander’s action, the court held.
Many have pointed to Alexander’s case as an example of inconsistent application of Stand Your Ground laws. While the laws that authorize use of deadly force in self-defense have led to acquittals or no charges for many male aggressors whose gunshots were fatal, Alexander was not successful in invoking the law for much less force, and in one of the few prominent cases that involves allegations of domestic violence. The judge’s failure to allow the claim comports with studies that have shown the ALEC and NRA-backed laws are discriminatory and applied arbitrarily.
But the facts of the scenario that led to Alexander’s conviction remain in dispute, including in the appeals court decision. While the three-judge panel agreed that Alexander’s gunshot did not hit or injure anyone, and that her husband had been abusive in the past, they write separate opinions to give differing versions of the threat Alexander faced that night. Two judges assert in the majority opinion that Alexander was unsuccessful in escaping the house, grabbed a gun, and fired the gun after her husband said, “Bitch, I’ll kill you” at the end of aggressive questioning over whether her newborn baby was fathered by another man. Judge T. Kent Wetherell II’s concurring opinion questions that version of the facts and points out that other conflicting testimony suggests Alexander could have left the house, and aimed the at her husband, standing with her two step-children, before firing the warning shot.
The disputed facts are difficult to parse. Alexander did not call 911 after the incident, while her husband and children fled the home. But experts testified that Alexander was suffering from battered person’s syndrome, and her husband had been arrested twice for battery charges against other women.
But unlike other Stand Your Ground defendants, who needed the NRA-backed law to authorize them to use deadly force with no duty to retreat, Alexander was not facing murder charges or even battery charges. She was facing the much lesser charge of aggravated assault, an offense that is easier to prove than homicide. This is why many have pointed to the mandatory minimum 20-year sentence that eliminates the judge’s discretion as the problem in this case. Thursday’s decision reveals that another problem was improper jury instructions on the ordinary self-defense claim — a claim that should be more than adequate for a woman who perceived domestic violence without the option of Stand Your Ground.