Old 'Stand Your Ground' Case Gets New Trial
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes, we will hear from a white South African couple who left their middle-class home in the suburbs for a month to live in one of South Africa's poorest black townships. They'll tell us why they did it and what they learned from it.
But first, we want to go back to a subject we covered extensively earlier this year. That's the so-called Stand Your Ground law. Now many people started focusing on the Florida version of this law after the shooting death of the unarmed Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and the subsequent trial and acquittal of the shooter, George Zimmerman. Now partly because of that trial, another case involving the Stand Your Ground law received new attention. Now the circumstances are very different, as you will hear. The case involves a Florida woman named Marissa Alexander who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing, what she says, was a warning shot at her abusive husband. No one was injured, but a jury took just 12 minutes to find Marissa Alexander guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. But now a judge says Alexander will get a new trial. We wanted to learn more about this so we've called Larry Hannan. He covers the courts for the Florida Times-Union and he's with us now. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.
LARRY HANNAN: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Can you just briefly explain a few more details? What was Marissa Alexander charged with, and what was her defense?
HANNAN: She was charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Basically, she fired what she said was a warning shot at her husband and two of his children from a previous relationship, after, she claims, he had threatened to hurt her. She was convicted of that under Florida's minimum mandatory, if you commit that felony with a gun, you automatically get 20 years. A judge cannot sentence you to less than that.
And the case was appealed to the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee, and the judges there ruled that the jury instructions were done wrong because the judge in the original trial said it was up to Alexander's attorneys to prove that she was acting in self-defense. And they said, no, that's not the way it is - the prosecution has to prove that beyond a reasonable doubt that she was not acting in self-defense.
MARTIN: Why - that was going to be my question, which is why was her self-defense claim not considered credible? Do we know? I mean, the jury deliberated so briefly, it's hard to know. I don't know if they gave any interviews after the fact to say why they did not find her self-defense claim credible. Do we know?
HANNAN: The jury did not give any interviews afterwards. However, we know what the prosecution argued, which is they said that after she was supposedly abused, that she ran away into the garage and grabbed a gun and then came back into the house. The argument basically is that if she was truly in fear for her life, she wouldn't have come back into the house. She would have left through the garage. Now her lawyers claim the garage door was locked and she couldn't get out and that's why she came back after getting a gun out of the glove compartment. But the prosecutors say that's not why she did it, she went there to scare him and that she was not in fear of her life.
MARTIN: But the argument under Stand Your Ground is that you don't even have a duty to retreat. I mean, that is kind of the sticking point here.
MARTIN: So why, again, under Stand Your Ground - so in other places maybe that might not have been a credible defense, why wasn't it in Florida?
HANNAN: The argument is that while you don't have a duty to retreat, you're also not allowed to advance. And their argument basically was that she was advancing when she fired. There was another case I covered recently where someone charged another man, the man shot the guy twice and then took a step forward and fired the third shot. And the judge rejected his Stand Your Ground argument, basically saying, you would've gotten away with it if you just fired the first two shots - because you took that step forward, you were advancing and, therefore, Stand Your Ground doesn't apply.
So then that's basically the argument that Judge Senterfitt ruled on the Marissa Alexander case - that she was advancing, that, you know, once she retreated to the garage, she couldn't advance back into the kitchen, as she did.
MARTIN: Now you're telling us that the subsequent judge, the appellate judge, ordered a new trial based on bad jury instructions. That the burden of proof should have been on the prosecutors. Isn't that kind of basic first-year - I mean, isn't that something somebody'd learn in law school - in the first year of law school?
MARTIN: It seems rather striking.
HANNAN: It is rather jarring. You know, I don't know why the judge did it this way. Here in Florida, often times, the prosecution will actually suggest what the jury instructions say, the defense will then debate it as well before the judge instructs. And for whatever reason, the judge chose to do it this way, basically saying that, you know - Judge Daniel basically said that Marissa Alexander must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was battered by her husband. And the appellate court said the burden should've been on the prosecution to prove that Alexander was not acting in self-defense.
MARTIN: Now this case has also gotten a lot of attention because, as we discussed, because of the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin, you know, confrontation. There is a racial component to that - Trayvon Martin being African-American, George Zimmerman being white of Latino, you know, descent - heritage, that he claims. Now Marissa Alexander's African-American and some people draw the analogy and say that this is another example of where African-Americans are experiencing excessive prosecution for comparable acts. And I just wanted to ask if you could comment on that since you've been covering this matter?
HANNAN: Yeah, I actually spoke to Jesse Jackson last week after Marissa Alexander got a new trial, and he made the point to me that these cases are forever going to be linked now because people see one person who basically got off by claiming self-defense when they shot and killed someone, and another person fired a bullet, whether it's a warning shot or not is debatable, but she certainly didn't hit or hurt anyone, and she ends up with 20 years.
And the argument Jesse Jackson and others have made is that there's just a natural unfairness to this. That someone who could get 20 years in jail when they didn't hurt anything other than a wall, and someone who shot someone to death gets to go free, you know. This is a very complex case. It's a domestic, and like most domestics, it's incredibly messy and people disagree over just about everything. But Reggie Fullwood, who's a state representative here, made the point to me - people just hear someone fired a warning shot and got 20 years, they just feel that's not right.
MARTIN: Finally - and I only left you a minute to answer this, I apologize - it's unfair, but is there any further discussion about the Stand Your Ground law in the wake of this reconsideration of this matter?
HANNAN: A task force looked at Stand Your Ground last year. The then-lieutenant governor was the chairwoman of it. They basically found that there was nothing wrong with the Stand Your Ground law. Right now, the legislator in Florida is dominated by Republicans, the NRA is very strong and I think with the current makeup of legislator, nothing is going to happen. There's also been an effort to amend the minimum mandatory sentencing, so that someone like Marissa Alexander, even if she was convicted, would not get 20 years. That bill has been filed two years straight and has gone nowhere. We'll see - the next legislative session won't be till next year.
MARTIN: All right, Larry Hannan covers the courts for the Florida Times-Union. He was kind enough to join us from member station WJCT in Jacksonville, Florida. Larry, thanks so much for bringing us up to date here.
HANNAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.