Stand-your-ground law in Florida: the bigger story

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The Zimmerman case wasn’t the only Florida stand-your-ground case to cause a seismic outcry. Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot to scare her husband.

There’s some debate as to whether the gun was aimed at the wall or the ceiling. That’s significant because her husband and children were present. It took the jury 12 minutes to reach a verdict.

The sentencing caused a public outrage because of her documented status as a victim of domestic violence and because of the Zimmerman trial and subsequent not guilty verdict. Who better to justify “standing- your- ground” than a domestic violence victim, many asked?

Ironically, Florida’s controversial law did not hold up under a domestic violence self-defense claim at Alexander’s trial. While she committed a crime under Florida law, the unique circumstances of her case weren’t a consideration in her sentencing. They were totally irrelevant. That alone seems to be an even bigger issue than comparisons to the Zimmerman trial and verdict.

Alexander appealed the trial court’s ruling and in September was granted a new trial based on a technicality and not on her self-defense claim Although witness testimony seems to support stand-your-ground as a defense, it was off-limits.

According to the Court of Appeal ruling, witnesses testified about the abuse during the initial trial regarding Alexander’s husband Rico Gray. The ruling reveals that several close relatives, including Alexander’s daughter, younger sister, mother, and ex-husband had seen her injuries, which they believed to be inflicted by Mr. Gray. Two of Mr. Gray’s sisters-in-law also testified that he had a reputation in the community as being violent.

Essentially, the appeal had nothing to do with Florida’s stand-your-ground law. Instead, the basis for the appeal was erroneous jury instructions, which shifted the burden of proof (beyond a reasonable doubt) from the prosecutor to Alexander. That’s a heavy burden.

When a defendant claims self-defense, the State carries the burden of proving the defendant committed the crime and did not act in self-defense. A defendant, such as Alexander, only has to present enough evidence to warrant a jury instruction on self-defense.

But why wouldn’t a victim of documented domestic violence be able to use stand-your-ground to support a self-defense claim? In the original trial, the judge threw out Alexander’s “stand-your-ground” self-defense claim because after the altercation, she could have run out of the house to escape her husband, but instead got a gun and went back inside the house, and fired the gun into the ceiling or wall.

State Attorney Angela Corey argued that stand-your-ground did not apply here because Alexander fired the gun out of anger. The judge agreed, saying that by returning to the house, she showed she was not in fear for her life. Although no one was hurt, a jury found her guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Because she fired a gun while committing a felony, Florida’s mandatory-minimum gun law triggered the 20-year sentence.

This photo is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.
This photo is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Here’s how that works: committing certain felonies with a gun in Florida will get you 10 years, firing the gun will get you 20, and actually striking someone will get you 25 to life. Florida’s mandatory-minimum gun law essentially decimates a stand-your-ground defense in a case like Alexander’s.

Even worse, it prevents cracking the code on Battered Person’s Syndrome (BPS), so that the trier of fact understands inconsistent behavior, which is often used to crush the credibility of domestic violence defendants.

Those outraged by the verdict asked: If George Zimmerman feared for his life and fired his weapon, ultimately killing Trayvon Martin, wouldn’t a victim of domestic violence be even more justified in firing a warning shot to scare her abuser? After all, the final defense witness, Mia Wilson, Ph.D., testified that Marissa met the criteria for “battered person’s syndrome.”

While BPS is not used to excuse criminal behavior, it may explain why a man or a woman in Alexander’s situation would “return to the house,” otherwise known as exhibiting behavior inconsistent with one fearful for his/her life.

As noted above, the trial court 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 got the gun and went back inside. In light of expert testimony regarding BPS, and the history of domestic violence, “returning to house” could be viewed as a conceivable reaction by Alexander and others in similar circumstances.

What exactly are the behavior patterns of a person with BPS? And how do we know Marissa Alexander’s behavior falls within this pattern? While there’s no universal answer to behavioral patterns of BPS, it is clear that such a person’s fear may be inconsistent with their actions.

LA Protest: Earlier this year Los Angeles protested the verdict in the Zimmerman case. (Timothy W. Maier)
Earlier this year Los Angeles protested the verdict in the Zimmerman case. (Timothy W. Maier)

The topic was first addressed by Lenore Walker as “battered women’s syndrome” to explain why abused women stayed with their abusers. It attempted to answer the question still frequently asked: “why don’t you just leave?”

BPS was and is still used as a controversial defense to explain why victims of domestic violence plan and commit murder against their abusers. The theory is based on the victim’s belief that the only way to protect him/herself was to eliminate the abuser.

Using BPS as a legal defense is controversial as well in cases that don’t involve murder, such as Alexander’s.  It’s seems clear that her credibility was tightly tied to her behavior by “returning to the house.” But inconsistent behavior like this, left unexplained or unexplored will lead to more failed self-defense claims in domestic violence cases.

The purpose of expert testimony is to flush out information that may be confusing to the jury so that the information becomes relevant and helpful to understanding the issues. It could make a difference at sentencing.

Did that happen here? It does not appear so. It was relegated irrelevant, thanks to Florida’s mandatory minimum law. A quote from the trial judge sums it up: “I would say that, if it wasn’t for the minimum mandatory aspect of this, I would use my discretion and impose some separate sentence, having taken into consideration the circumstances of this event …”

UPDATE: as this story was going to press Marissa Alexander was set free on bond.  Alexander will be under house arrest while awaiting a new trial, according to the Duval County Clerk of Court.