There was outrage in the streets of Florida, or at a minimum in the media. George Zimmerman gets away with killing a black teenager while using a firearm, and a black woman, Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison after being convicted by a jury of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for firing a warning shot in effort to get her husband to desist from physical abuse after a history of physical abuse. Racism was the cry. However, the First District Court of Appeals for the State of Florida cried bad jurisprudence.
On the 26th day of September 2013, the First District Court of Appeals reversed Marissa Alexander's conviction for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentence of twenty years in prison in the case of Alexander v. State, 38 Fla. L. Weekly D2067a (Fla. 1st DCA 2013). The court did not find that Ms. Alexander was immune from prosecution under Florida's Stand Your Ground Law, but found that the jury instruction provided by the court to the jury improperly put the burden on Ms. Alexander to prove she acted in self-defense as opposed to putting the burden on the prosecution to prove she did not act in self-defense.
Many people were outraged that George Zimmerman was found not guilty and Marissa Alexander was found guilty. They protested how could George Zimmerman be found to have stood his ground lawfully and Ms. Alexander could not. But, in actuality, George Zimmerman was not found to have stood his ground lawfully because if that were the case the judge, Judge Deborah Nelson, would have had to dismiss the case (thrown it out) prior to a jury ever getting the chance to decide the outcome. Under the stand your ground law in Florida, if the court finds a person stood his ground in self-defense the person is immune from prosecution. See Clarence Dennis v. the State of Florida, 51 So.3d 456 (Fla. 2010). No one found that George Zimmerman was immune from prosecution. The jury found that there was insufficient evidence to overcome his defense that he acted in self-defense after being properly instructed on the burden of proof and when self-defense is permitted.
The jury, in Ms. Alexander's case, was misinformed. The jury was instructed:
A person is justified in using deadly force if she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent:
1. imminent death or great bodily harm to herself or another, or
2. the imminent commission of Aggravated Battery against herself or another.
To prove the crime of Aggravated Battery, the following two elements must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. The first element is a definition of battery.
1. Rico Gray Sr. intentionally touched or struck MARISSA DANIELLE ALEXANDER against her will.
2. Rico Gray Sr. in committing the battery intentionally or knowingly caused great bodily harm to MARISSADANIELLE ALEXANDER.
By giving the instruction above it appeared that Ms. Alexander had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that her husband was in the imminent commission of an aggravated battery.
However, the First DCA ruled that "[t]he defendant's burden is only to raise a reasonable doubt concerning self-defense. The defendant does not have the burden to prove the victim guilty of the aggression defended against beyond a reasonable doubt. 'When a defendant claims self-defense, the State maintains the burden of proving the defendant committed the crime and did not act in self-defense.' Montijo v. State, 61 So.3d 424, 427 (Fla. 5th DCA 2011)
. 'The burden never shifts to the defendant to prove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt. Rather, he must simply present enough evidence to support giving the instruction.' Id.
Ultimately, when a jury is instructed properly, i.e., that the State must prove that she committed the crime and did not act in self-defense, Ms. Alexander will have the same fate as George Zimmerman. She will most likely be found not guilty.
It is also important to note that many were outraged by the sentence, twenty years in prison. In Florida, if a person is convicted of a dangerous felony and while committing said felony discharged a semi-automatic firearm, the minimum sentence is twenty years in prison under Florida Statute 775.087(3)(a)(2)
. It appears the Court was required to give this draconian sentence.
Ultimately, the moral of the story is that if we do not pay the closest of attention to how we communicate the laws, inequitable results will be reached. Fortunately, the democracy found in the United States of America and our way of governing have the protections necessary to ensure people are not wrongfully oppressed or convicted; at least for the most part.
If you are charged with an assault, battery and especially if it is with a deadly weapon and you want to ensure your rights are properly protected please call my office for a complimentary consultation.