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Another Florida Case Puts Crosshairs On 'Stand Your Ground'


In 2010, Marissa Alexander, a black woman from Jacksonville, fired what she called a warning shot in the direction of her estranged husband during a domestic dispute. No one was injured. This past week, after more than three years behind bars, she was released on house arrest following a new trial and plea deal. During her original trial, Alexander tried to invoke Florida's Stand Your Ground defense. That didn't work.

LARRY HANNAN: She was originally convicted of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

RATH: Larry Hannan is a reporter with the Florida Times-Union who's covered the case for years.

HANNAN: Under Florida law, if you're convicted of firing a gun, it's an automatic 20 years at least in prison.

RATH: Hannan says the original trial happened in obscurity. But after a jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, people started to pay attention to the Alexander case.

HANNAN: People saw it as the warning shot case and said why is a woman who only fired a warning shot getting 20 years in prison when George Zimmerman is going free?

RATH: And what were the facts that were in dispute that were leading Marissa Alexander to claim self-defense in this case?

HANNAN: She claimed that her husband had just beaten her and that he was about to beat her again, that he was charging towards her when she fired the shot and that she was not trying to shoot him. She was just trying to scare him off. Her husband, Rico Gray, and the prosecutors disputed that saying that she didn't fire the shot at the ceiling, she fired it past him into the wall and that it could've killed either him or two of his underage children, who were both in the room as well.

RATH: And she was not allowed to invoke the Stand Your Ground defense, right?

HANNAN: The judge ruled that it wasn't a Stand Your Ground case. The important thing to remember about Stand Your Ground in Florida is you're not allowed to advance. And what happened was after he beat her, she fled into the garage, got her gun out of the glove compartment and came back into the house. What the judge found was that by advancing back into the house, she lost her right to claim Stand Your Ground.

RATH: So can you explain what happened that led to a judge ordering a new trial in this case?

HANNAN: During the jury instruction for the first trial, the judge told the jurors that it was up to Marissa Alexander to convince them that she had acted in self-defense. The appellate court reviewed that and said that was improper. It was up to the prosecution to prove that it was not self-defense. So the conviction and the sentence were thrown out, and we went back to the beginning. And by this point, of course, it had become a big national story.

RATH: And then now there's been a plea deal. Can you explain the terms of her release?

HANNAN: Yes. Well, she pleaded guilty to three counts of aggravated assault once again and was sentenced to three years in prison. But she's already been locked up for three years, so when she was sentenced to three years in prison earlier this week, she got out immediately. She is now on house arrest for two years. She's going to have to wear an ankle monitor and can only leave her house to go to work, go to school, go to church or go to doctor's appointments.

RATH: You mentioned how this case - Marissa Alexander's case - got a lot of attention after George Zimmerman shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Has what's happened with this case provided any more clarity when it comes to those laws in Florida?

HANNAN: I think it's led to more questioning of the laws with Stand Your Ground and the minimum mandatory sentencing, which is called 10-20-Life here in Florida. But these laws still have fairly broad popular support in Florida, although it breaks down among racial lines.

RATH: Well, you know, there's also this perception that self-defense claims or Stand Your Ground works better for white people than people of color. Is there anything to support that?

HANNAN: You know, one of the problems we have here in Florida is no one keeps track of it. I tried to do this a few years ago where I tried to just detail all of the claims of Stand Your Ground. But it's very difficult. You know, there's no reporting requirement, so we just don't know anecdotally. It does appear as if white people are more likely to get off than black. But I will tell you I've seen a lot of white people claim Stand Your Ground in Jacksonville, and they don't get it either.

RATH: Larry Hannan is a courts reporter for the Florida Times-Union. Larry, thanks very much.

HANNAN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.