July 13, 2013

One Case We Should be Talking About

By Cynthia Alkon

In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, I wonder why this case has not gotten any serious attention.

The defendant, Marissa Alexander, was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon when she fired a warning shot towards the ceiling at her estranged husband, who she had a restraining order against.  Ms. Alexander claimed that she was in fear.  The judge refused to allow Ms. Alexander to assert the Stand Your Ground defense because she apparently went back into the house with a gun.  Given that this seems to be a domestic violence case, with a history of abuse, it is curious to me that the judge did not decide that the question of self-defense or Stand Your Ground was a factual question for the jury to answer.

Without the Stand Your Ground defense, the jury deliberated briefly and convicted.  Under Florida’s mandatory minimum gun law Ms. Alexander was sentenced to 20 years.  Under the law anyone who brandishes a gun in the commission of certain felonies gets an automatic 10 years in prison, if they fire the gun it is 20 years.  Ms. Alexander had never been to prison before, had a masters degree, and is the mother of three young children.

What is interesting, or disturbing, is that Ms. Alexander was offered a deal of 3 years in prison.  She rejected the deal because she thought she did not commit a crime.

This is where Ms. Alexander’s story starts to look very similar as she suffered a stiff penalty for exercising her right to trial, what is commonly called the trial penalty.  The trial penalty is even stiffer when it involves offenses, like this one, with mandatory minimums.

As Greg Newburn, from Families Against Mandatory Minimums said,

“The irony of the 10-20-life law is the people who actually think they’re innocent of the crime, they roll the dice and take their chances, and they get the really harsh prison sentences.  Whereas the people who think they are actually guilty of the crime take the plea deal and get out (of prison) well before…” See also here.

The prosecutor, the same one whose office prosecuted Mr. Zimmerman, commented on the plea offer saying that Marissa Alexander “didn’t have to get 20 years, because I took into account their prior domestic history and her lack of a [criminal] record, and we offered her the three year mandatory minimum.” See here.

The most important question, for me, remains both unasked and unanswered in the news reports:  why was this case worth 3 years in prison under the plea deal, but 20 years in prison after a trial that lasted just a few days?  If the prosecutor thought the case was worth just three years, she  should have amended her complaint to make it an offense that did not carry a mandatory minimum.  Prosecutors have the discretion to do that, despite the fact that they rarely do so after a defendant has rejected a plea deal.  In that sense the prosecutor in this case is right.  Marissa Alexander didn’t have to get 20 years.  The prosecutor had it well within her power to see to that.

Last 5 posts by Cynthia Alkon

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Comments

  • Jon Marshall says:

    The wildly disparate outcomes here and for Zimmerman make the operation of “stand yer ground” even more insane than the theory. It seems that in Ms Alexander’s case the trial penalty is baked into the rules: the prosecutor cited a mandatory three year minimum for a guilty plea, versus a mandatory 20 years in the event of a guilty verdict. You’re right about charge discretion, but why this added bit of discretion for the prosecutor?

    As an aside, no well-ordered political system will survive if it subcontracts out its monopoly over violence, but that’s another question for another time.

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