Stand Your Ground laws will be in the national spotlight as the appeals process begins in the case of Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she says was a warning shot during an altercation with her husband.
The law, which exists in various forms in some 25 states, allows for the use of lethal force without the necessity of trying to retreat. (Under traditional self defense, a person who feels threatened must back away if he or she has the option, rather than resorting to lethal force.) Alexander’s attorneys argued that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law should have protected the then 31-year-old from prosecution when she fired a warning shot into the wall. At the time, defense attorneys argued, Alexander felt threatened by her husband, who she said had a history of abuse.
The state argued that Alexander could have left the house during the argument instead of retrieving her gun and coming back inside. A jury convicted her on three counts of aggravated assault last year. Because the crime involved a firearm that was discharged, Alexander was subject to a minimum sentence of 20 years under Florida’s “10-20-Life” law.
Faith Gay, one of Alexander’s attorneys, said on msnbc Thursday that oral argument hadn’t yet been set, but that they were looking forward to making three “meritorious” challenges in the First District Court of Appeals.
“One to the pretrial Stand Your Ground hearing,” said Gay, which defense attorneys argue should have given Alexander immunity. Another “to Ms. Alexander’s ability to consult with her counsel during the trial, and the prohibitions based on that.” And third, she said, to the jury instructions, which she believes “reversed the burden of proof” and “made too much of an evidentiary requirement” on Alexander during the trial.
Stand Your Ground and Alexander’s case have received enhanced attention in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s trial, which resulted in a not-guilty verdict on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Though Zimmerman’s legal team did not cite Stand Your Ground in their defense, the law did come into play in both the investigation of the shooting and the trial.
Because Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defense after the teen attacked him, police did not arrest Zimmerman for almost two months after the shooting. Stand Your Ground was also included in instructions to the jury and factored into the acquittal, one juror said. Zimmerman was acquitted of second degree murder and manslaughter charges.
To many critics, the difference between the verdicts of Alexander, who is African-American, and Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is Hispanic, speaks to the racial disparity in the criminal justice system and suggests a bias in how Stand Your Ground laws are applied. Part of this comparison, said The Grio’s Joy-Ann Reid on msnbc Thursday, is rooted in the fact that both cases shared the same prosecutor, Angela Corey. But the biggest irony, she said, is that Alexander’s team is attempting to use the Stand Your Ground law, while many of her supporters are blasting it.
“[Marissa Alexander] is not one of those who’s saying Stand Your Ground is a problem in this case; she’s saying, ‘No, I want to use Stand Your Ground as a defense,’” said Reid. “What they’re saying is that the court erred in not giving Marissa Alexander that immunity.”
A number a studies have yielded mixed results on the role race plays in Stand Your Ground cases. According to a Tampa Bay Times analysis, 73% of defendants were able to successfully use Stand Your Ground to escape penalty in cases where the victim was black. That percentage dropped to 59% when the victim was white.
“The fact that the race of the deceased being African-American means you’re more likely to get off I think does speak to a racial disparity in Stand Your Ground,” said Reid.
What the Alexander and Zimmerman cases both show, said Reid, is that Stand Your Ground “doesn’t work in a common sense way.”
Editor’s note: George Zimmerman has sued NBC Universal for defamation. The company strongly denies the allegation.