"Stand Your Ground" defense fails in Florida shooting case

Reuters News
Posted: May 14, 2012 11:03 PM
"Stand Your Ground" defense fails in Florida shooting case

By Amy Wimmer Schwarb

JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law is coming under more scrutiny, this time in a case involving a woman sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a gun in the direction of her abusive husband.

Marissa Alexander was sentenced last week after a Florida judge rejected her defense citing the "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows people to use deadly force in a case where a person is attacked or believes his life or safety is in danger.

The controversial law, first enacted in Florida and now in effect in more than 20 other states, has come under growing criticism after the shooting death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin in February.

Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, claimed in court that she fired a warning shot into the ceiling of a house after her husband threatened her and moved in her direction. The husband was not hit.

In issuing the ruling, the judge said Alexander could have escaped the situation instead of firing her gun.

Florida's minimum-sentence guidelines require Alexander to serve 20 years in prison because a gun was fired in the incident.

A member of the U.S. House of Representatives, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and an advocacy group opposed to minimum prison sentencing guidelines have all rallied behind Alexander, calling her sentence harsh.

Greg Newburn, Florida project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums, said under the sentencing guidelines Alexander would not be granted early release or opportunities for parole.

"I operate under the assumption, for argument's sake, that even if everything the state attorney alleges is true, the 20-year sentence is still obscene," Newburn said.

"I don't argue that the sentence is unjust because she is innocent, I argue that the sentence is unjust because it does not fit the circumstances."


Representative Corrine Brown of Florida, who attended the sentencing, issued a statement criticizing the prison term.

"If women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the 'Stand Your Ground' law will not apply to them," she said.

"Just minutes before the incident, Marissa's husband told her 'If I can't have you, nobody is going to have you.' Millions of abused women have heard those words."

Alexander alleged that during the August 1, 2010, incident her husband choked her and refused to let her leave the house. She said she eventually escaped to the garage, then realized she left her car keys behind and returned, carrying a handgun.

The office of Florida State Attorney Angela Corey said evidence at the scene suggested the shot was fired in a more threatening direction and put at risk two children who were also in the home at the time.

Corey said she offered Alexander a plea deal for a three-year sentence, but she refused. "She turned it down through a trial where she took the stand and, based on our assertion of the facts and based on our presentation of the evidence, she was found guilty," Corey said.

Relatives of Alexander say she plans to appeal and intends to take her case to Florida's clemency board, which has broad powers to reduce sentences or even pardon convicted criminals.

Alexander had no prior criminal record and possessed a court-issued protective order against her husband at the time of the attack.

Alexander's husband, Rico Gray, was arrested in 2006 and 2009 on charges of domestic battery.

Martin was shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, in an Orlando suburb and authorities initially declined to arrest the shooter because of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law.

The decision prompted nationwide protests and Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, was later charged with second-degree murder by Corey and arrested.

(Editing by Kevin Gray and Mohammad Zargham)