A Florida woman serving 20 years in prison for firing a shot at her estranged husband during an argument will get a new trial, but she will not be allowed to invoke the state's controversial "stand your ground" defense, an appeals court ruled Thursday.
The sentencing of Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old Jacksonville mother of three, sparked criticism earlier this year from a local NAACP chapter and an African-American congresswoman, who said blacks more often are incarcerated for long periods because of overzealous prosecutors and judges bound by mandatory minimum sentences.
MAP: 'Stand your ground' laws -- state by state
Alexander was sentenced under the state's "10-20-life" law, which was implemented in 1999 and credited with helping to lower the violent crime rate. That law says that anyone who shows a gun while in the act ofn committing certain felonies gets an automatic 10 years in prison. That sentence increases to an automatic 20 years for firing the gun and 25 years to life for shooting and wounding someone.
The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled that Alexander deserves a new trial because the trial judge handling her case did not properly instruct the jury regarding what is needed to prove self-defense. The ruling, written by Judge Robert Benton, said the instructions constituted a "fundamental error" and required Alexander to prove self-defense "beyond a reasonable doubt."
Alexander was estranged from her husband, Rico Gray, and had a restraining order against him, when she retruned to their home on Aug. 1, 2010 to retrieve her clothes, family members said.
An argument ensued and Alexander, who said she feared for her life, went out to her vehicle to get the gun she legally owned. She came back inside and ended up firing a shot into the wall, which ricocheted into the ceiling.
Gray testified that he saw Alexander point the gun at him and looked away before she fired the shot. He claimed that she was the aggressor, and that he had begged her to put away the weapon.
The judge threw out Alexander's "stand your ground" self-defense claim, noting that she could have run out of the house to escape her husband but instead retreived the gun and returned to the house. Alexander rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence and chose to go to trial. A jury deliberated 12 minutes before convicting her.
State Attorney Angela Corey, who oversaw the prosecution of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, has stood by the handling of Alexander's case. Corey said she believes that Alexander aimed the gun at the man and his two sons, and that the bullet she fired could have ricocheted and hit any of them.
Zimmerman, who was charged with second-degree murder, was found not guilty in July.
Jackelyn Barnard, a spokeswoman for Corey, said that the conviction was reversed on a legal technicality and that the office was gratified that the "stand your ground" ruling was upheld.
Faith Gay, one of the attorneys representing Alexander, said she was grateful for the "thorough consideration" provided by the appeals court.
"We are looking forward to taking the case back to trial," Gay said.
Alexander was also charged with domestic battery four months after the shooting in another assault on Gray. She pleaded no contest and was sentenced to time served.
Supporters of Alexander have asked Gov. Rick Scott to pardon Alexander, but her case has not yet been taken by the state's clemency board.
The Associated Press