Florida’s Marissa Alexander Who Was Jailed On A Failed “Stand Your Ground” Defense Is Finally Completely Free

Marissa Alexander who became the poster pin-up for the”Stand Your Ground” Law gone wrong.  Having been abused by her ex-husband and being threatened by him in an encounter after giving birth to her baby fired a warning shot to defend herself.  Alexander’s life would change in a way she never would have imagined.

After several court appearances in which she was represented by a criminal defense lawyer, countless days in a jail cell and the burden of electronic monitoring Marissa Alexander is finally completely a free woman.  Free to do as she wishes with her children and her life.  Alexander plans to use her experience advocating for abused women and seeking to have the “Stand Your Ground” changed.

Read more as reported by the NY TImes:

Photo Credit: Betsey Hansen

Marissa Alexander no longer wears an ankle monitor. She is now free to go to the park and play basketball with her children in her Jacksonville, Fla., neighborhood. She can ride a bicycle and stroll on the beach, which she dreamed about in prison.

“I didn’t carry an umbrella when I first got home,” she said, “because I wanted to feel the rain drops on my skin.”

Ms. Alexander, 36, spent almost a half-dozen years either locked in prison or confined to her house after she was convicted of aggravated assault charges in 2012 for firing a warning shot at her husband, who she said had abused her. According to her account in court documents, he had threatened her nine days after she gave birth to their daughter.

Ms. Alexander was finally freed on Jan. 27. She plans to take up the fight for domestic abuse victims and push for a change in what advocates have called the uneven application of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. She will advocate amending the law in order to take the burden of proof off defendants who have to demonstrate in pretrial hearings that they acted in self-defense and deserve immunity from trial.

In Florida, the law allows for the use of deadly force in self-defense with no duty to retreat when a violent intruder breaks into a home or car.

That shield was denied her in 2011, when a judge in a pretrial hearing rejected her attempt to use the law, saying she did not meet the burden of proof because there was a “factual dispute” on her Stand Your Ground defense. That led to her trial and ultimate conviction, said Faith E. Gay, one of Ms. Alexander’s lawyers.

“Here is a black woman who had a history of abuse against her and tried to use Stand Your Ground and ended up with a 20-year sentence,” Bruce Zimet, one Ms. Alexander’s lawyers, said in a telephone interview.

Ms. Alexander said of how she believed the court viewed her defense, “It was a crime from the jump,” adding, the Stand Your Ground law “was never considered.”

On Thursday, she plans to speak before a Florida Senate committee meeting in support of that proposed amendment to the law. If enacted, it would shift the burden of proof from defendants to prosecutors.

State Senator Rob Bradley, a sponsor of the bill, said, “I think it is important that anybody who feels that the criminal system has affected them shares their stories.”

In the years since the shooting, Ms. Alexander has become the face of efforts to challenge laws, like the state’s mandatory-sentencing rules, that can have an impact on self-defense cases. The events that sent Ms. Alexander down a path to prison began in August 2010. She and her husband began arguing, according to court records, and Ms. Alexander said she fired at him in self-defense.

But prosecutors noted that the bullet went into the wall behind her husband rather than into the ceiling, and they asserted that she had fired “out of anger,” Mr. Zimet, her lawyer, said.

Ms. Alexander was convicted and, because of the sentencing laws, initially received 20 years in prison, according to the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

Her husband at the time, Rico Gray Sr., acknowledged in a hearing that there had been previous instances of violence, and the trial judge allowed the testimony to be introduced as evidence, court documents and Ms. Gay said.

Mr. Gray could not be reached for comment. But the lawyer who represented him, Richard R. Kuritz, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday that Mr. Gray cooperated with prosecutors because he wanted the case resolved so as not to put his children through the process. “People have lost sight of the fact that he was standing with his son when she came back into the house with the gun,’’ Mr. Kuritz said. “He was unarmed and she shot at him.”

In 2013, Ms. Alexander’s conviction was overturned on appeal. As she was awaiting a new trial, she negotiated a plea agreement that allowed her to serve three years in prison and two years confined to her house.

Some have compared her case to another, more prominent, one in Florida: that of George Zimmerman, who was tried and cleared in 2012 in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

Although the Stand Your Ground law was not a factor in Mr. Zimmerman’s defense — his lawyers argued he shot in self-defense — it was part of the jury’s instructions and played a role in the way the police approached the initial investigation.

Protesters have demanded changes to the law, which some prosecutors and police officers say is vague and has been misused by people to avoid prosecution.

“It was highly controversial because it encourages vigilantism, but it seems to have not been applied evenly,” Ms. Gay said.

Florida was the first state to pass a Stand Your Ground law, in 2005, with strong support from the National Rifle Association. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, 23 other states have such laws.

In Louisiana, the authorities invoked the state’s own version of the laws to defend the pace of their investigation into the shooting death of the former N.F.L. player Joe McKnight and their treatment of the suspect, Ronald Gasser Jr., who was freed initially. The sheriff said officials needed time to build a better case. Eventually, Mr. Gasser was indicted on a second-degree murder charge last week.

The Miami Herald also reported that last month defense lawyers invoked the state law to try to have charges dismissed against a Louisiana man accused of shooting three people outside a Key West strip club in 2016.

Ms. Alexander’s case also became part of the debate over the state’s mandatory sentencing laws, which require 10 years, 20 years or life in prison in cases involving someone firing warning shots and the possession or use of a firearm. Some have argued that the guidelines take discretion out of judges’ hands.

“It is pure over-criminalization,” Ms. Gay said.

Florida lawmakers eventually removed the charge of aggravated assault — the same charge Ms. Alexander was given.

Ms. Alexander served her sentence in Lowell Correctional Institution in Ocala, Fla. Her time in prison took her away from her job at a payroll processing company, as well as from her three children.

Now, she is doing consulting work for an elementary school and has established a nonprofit called the Marissa Alexander Justice Project, which will provide advocacy in cases of domestic violence, as well as promote policy reform.

Free Marissa Now, an alliance of activists that had campaigned for Ms. Alexander’s release, said in a statement that there were many more such cases, and it linked to those compiled by Survived and Punished advocates that involve abused women caught up in the system after being charged, or in prison or immigration detention.

Ms. Alexander said: “I have had another opportunity, a second chance, and I believe everybody deserves that. So I am going to live my best life going forward.”

Source: NY Times

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