Marissa Alexander case: Does ‘Stand Your Ground’ have a racial double standard?

Marissa AlexanderBy Ryan Blodgett

In May of last year, Marissa Alexander, a black resident of Tampa Florida, was tried and convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon — a felony — for allegedly protecting herself against her violent husband. The proximity of Alexander’s conviction to the fatal shooting of Treyvon Martin has brought to light a potential racial double standard over Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law.

Because Alexander was convicted of a felony in which she discharged a firearm, she was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison, the Huffington Post reports. This conviction shocked many when the news came out. Alexander had allegedly shot a gun in self defense in her own home, as a warning shot to scare off an abusive husband who had choked her that very night. Allegedly, the husband had yelled “I’ll kill you!” while charging at Alexander.

The prosecution put forth the case that Alexander fired her gun at her husband while he was standing next to their children, and that she easily could have missed or caused a bullet to ricochet that could have injured any of them.  At the end of her trial, a jury deliberated for 12 minutes before returning a guilty verdict. She had attempted a “stand your ground” defense, as well as a traditional self-defense claim, but neither were successful.

Alexander is a black woman, and in the midst of the killing of Treyvon Martin, many viewed Alexander’s trial and sentence as prime examples of racially disparate treatment in prosecution and sentencing in Florida. Angela Corey is the state attorney who prosecuted Alexander. Corey also prosecuted George Zimmerman in the Treyvon Martin case, for which she was subject to significant criticism, including the suggestion by Alan Dershowitz — famous litigator and Harvard Law School professor — that she be disbarred.

Shortly after Alexander was convicted in 2012 and on the day that Treyvon Martin was killed, the Tampa Bay Times released findings based on an analysis of nearly 200 cases involving stand your ground defenses, and their outcomes. Among those findings was that “[d]efendants claiming ‘stand your ground’ are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. Seventy-three percent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 percent of those who killed a white.”

Stand your ground is a legal principle that operates in some states (including Florida) that removed the duty to retreat from the common law claim of self defense. Absent stand your ground laws, to legally be able to claim self defense, one must not have a reasonable opportunity to retreat safely from the situation. In essence, stand your ground allows you to kill someone who threatens you with grievous bodily harm even when you could get away safely. Eight weeks after Alexander was convicted, PBS released the following graphic comparing the the percentage change that an alleged homicide would be found justifiable when looking at the race of the victim, perpetrator, and whether or not the jurisdiction had a stand your ground law.

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Alexander has since appealed her conviction. Last week, the appellate court ruled partially in Ms. Alexander’s favor, ABC News reports. While the court did not grant her the stand your ground defense, it did reverse her conviction and send her case back to the trial level court for a new trial. The appellate court reasoned that the trial court had offered an incorrect jury instruction regarding Alexander’s self defense claim. That court had required the jury to find that Alexander was acting in self defense “beyond a reasonable doubt.” This was incorrect, the appellate court explained, as such a standard only applies in cases in which the victim was injured. Because Ms. Alexander fired her gun into the ceiling and no one was harmed, a less onerous standard should apply.

While a 12 minute deliberation time suggests to me that Alexander’s original jury would likely come to the same result given this standard, a new jury could feel differently.  Further, this case seems to have gathered significant media attention following the original conviction. With this attention may come greater resources to support Ms. Alexander’s defense.  While Florida prosecutors claim this ruling was based on merely “a legal technicality,” she will now have another attempt at a trial, which may lead to a different result.

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Posted by on September 30, 2013. Filed under Judicial,Recent News,Top News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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