Appeal Court Orders New Trial for Marissa Alexander, But No Redo on Stand Your Ground
FlaglerLive | September 26, 2013
A unanimous three-judge ruling of Florida’s First District Court of Appeal has ordered a new trial for Marissa Alexander, the 32-year-old black Jacksonville woman whose 20-year prison sentence contrasted radically with George Zimmerman’s acquittal in a case that hinged on similar claims of self-defense. But Alexander will remain in jail, without bond, through the end of the new trial.
Writing for the majority, Judge Robert Benton ruled that while the trial court was not in error when it declined to grant Alexander immunity from prosecution under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, the court’s instructions to the jury about self-defense were a “fundamental error,” necessitating a new trial.
The shooting took place on Aug. 2, 2010. Alexander had pulled a restraining order against her then-husband, Rico Gray, with whom she’d had a baby less than two weeks before. Alexander went to Gray’s house to get some clothes, thinking he was not there. He was. They argued. Gray accused her of cheating and questioned the paternity of the new baby. Alexander locked herself in the bathroom. Gray broke through the door, grabbed her by the neck, and demanded to know when she’d last had sex with her ex-husband.
“She tried to push past him but he shoved her hard into the bathroom door,” the court’s narrative of the events read. “After struggling for what felt like an “eternity,” she testified, he relented and she ran from the bathroom straight to the garage.
Once inside the garage, Alexander testified, “she tried to leave the premises altogether but could not get the garage door open, and instead retrieved a gun (for which she had a permit) from the glove compartment of a vehicle in the garage. She then walked back into the house, she said, holding the gun by her side because she did not know whether Mr. Gray had left or not. As she walked into the kitchen, Mr. Gray saw the gun, and charged her ‘in a rage,’ saying, ‘Bitch, I’ll kill you.’ Startled, she raised the gun into the air and fired. Mr. Gray ran.” Alexander testified that she was forced to fire into the air as a warning shot because it was the “lesser of two evils.”
The shot was the culmination of a year and a half of abuse at her husband’s hands, Alexander testified. He had attempted to choke her and strangle her, once causing her to almost lose consciousness, shoved her repeatedly and violently on another occasion, causing injuries that sent her to the hospital—and causing Gray to be arrested. Five months into her pregnancy, Gray head-butted her twice, tore her clothes, threw her to the ground and threatened to kill her, as he had previously.
Several witnesses, including Alexander’s daughter, younger sister, mother and ex-husband all testified they had seen her injuries. Two of Gray’s sisters-in-law also testified that he had a reputation for violence in the community. The final defense witness, Mia Wilson, a psychologist, testified that the appellant met the criteria for “battered person’s syndrome.”
The prosecution was led by State Attorney Angela Corey, the same prosecutor who led—and lost—the state’s case against George Zimmerman in the shooting death of the unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Corey’s office issued a statement after the appeal court’s ruling, downplaying the judgment as “a technicality,” and emphasizing the court’s more minor finding that stand your ground is not an issue. Alexander will not have a stand your ground hearing, but that doesn’t mean that the new trial won’t recast the whole matter in a different light.
“By including the phrase ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ when giving the instruction on the aggravated battery prong of the self-defense instruction,” the court ruled, “the trial court improperly transmuted the prosecution’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt into a burden on [Alexander] to prove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt, depriving her of a trial under the correct rule.”
In other words, the jury instructions resulted in something close to Alexander having to be proven innocent, fundamentally reversing the burden of proof against her.
In a separate but concurring opinion, Judge T. Kent Wetherell noted that the facts of the case as summarized by the majority were written in a light most favorable to Alexander, though the jury had heard testimony that painted Alexander as the aggressor. “It was the prerogative of the jury to determine which version of events to believe and, by its verdict, it appears that the jury rejected Appellant’s version of events,” the judge wrote. The same will be true in a new trial, he concluded.
The ruling was nevertheless a victory for women’s rights groups and the Jacksonville NAACP, which had been clamoring for a retrial since May 2012, when Alexander was sentenced. In August, the Florida Cabinet declined to pardon Alexander, citing the pending appeal.