is scheduled to begin July 28.
A Jacksonville woman whose case generated outrage when she was sentenced to 20 years in prison may end up behind bars for 60 years for the same crime. The Office of State Attorney Angela Corey will seek to put Marissa Alexander in prison for 60 years, essentially a life sentence, if it succeeds in convicting her for a second time for firing a shot in the direction of her estranged husband and two of his children. Her trial is scheduled to begin on July 28.
Alexander, 33, was previously convicted in 2012 of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 20 years in prison by Circuit Judge James Daniel under the state’s 10-20-life law. Daniel actually imposed three separate 20-year sentences on Alexander but ordered that they be served concurrently, which meant Alexander would get out in 20 years.
The conviction was thrown out after the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee ruled that Daniel made a mistake in shifting the burden to Alexander to prove she was acting in self-defense. During jury instructions, Daniel said she must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was battered by her husband.
Alexander’s case drew national attention after she was denied immunity under the state’s Stand Your Ground law, with critics saying the crime Alexander was convicted of didn’t warrant 20 years behind bars. Supporters of Alexander blasted prosecutors Friday for seeking to triple her prison sentence.
“It’s unimaginable that a woman acting in self-defense, who injured no one, can be given what amounts to a life sentence,” said Free Marissa Now spokeswoman Helen Gilbert. “This must send chills down the spine of every woman and everyone who cares about women and every woman in an abusive relationship.” Seeking 60 years is an incredibly abusive and outrageous action by Corey, Gilbert said. But Assistant State Attorney Richard Mantei, the lead prosecutor in the case, told the Times-Union his office was simply following the sentencing laws of the state of Florida.
The same appeals court that ordered Alexander’s retrial separately ruled last year that when a defendant is convicted of multiple counts under 10-20-life that arose from the same crime, judges must make the sentences consecutive and are not allowed to impose them concurrently. The law has not changed since Alexander was sentenced in 2012, but courts throughout the state have been struggling to interpret what the Legislature meant when it passed sentencing laws regarding 10-20-life.
The Alexander case inspired the so-called “warning-shot” bill that will be part of the Florida legislative session that begins Tuesday. The proposal, which is expected to pass, would create an exception to the 10-20-life law and prohibit those who fire a warning shot from getting 20 years in prison.
DEBATE OVER COMBINED SENTENCES
Mantei said the appeals court ruling demanding consecutive 20-year sentences dictates that if Alexander is convicted of the same three counts, Daniel will be required to sentence her to 60 years in prison.
“Absent a plea agreement, if convicted as charged, the law of the State of Florida fixes the sentence,” Mantei said. “At this time, Ms. Alexander has rejected all efforts by the State to resolve the case short of trial.” Attorney Bruce Zimet said it would be a miscarriage of justice to put his client in prison for the rest of her life.
He said he plans to get Alexander acquitted at trial by arguing that she was acting in self-defense. But he also intends to argue that the 10-20-life law is unconstitutional because it violates the 8th Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, and will claim that Alexander cannot be sentenced to 60 years since she was only sentenced to 20 years at her first trial.
George “Bob” Dekle, a retired prosecutor who is now a law professor at the University of Florida, said if Alexander is convicted again the issue of whether she should get 60 years in prison could end up going to the Supreme Court. If a sentence increases on a retrial, the law considers that vindictive unless there’s a good reason for the increased sentence, Dekle said. “Prosecutors will say it’s not vindictive, it’s what the case law now says you have to do,” Dekle said. “It will be up to the judge to decide if he agrees with that.”
If Daniel agrees with prosecutors and sentences Alexander to 60 years in prison, an appeal is almost certain. But if Daniel sentences her to 20 years the issue is probably done. “I can tell you as a retired prosecutor you (the state) almost never win appeals on issues like this,” Dekle said. But Dekle cautioned that the issue is fluid, since multiple Florida appellate courts have ruled on this issue, and some of those rulings conflict with each other.
The Florida Supreme Court is expected to take up the issue of whether Florida law requires multiple 10-20-life sentences to be consecutive. While the 1st District has ruled that judges must make sentences consecutive, other appellate courts in Florida have said judges can impose sentences concurrently.
THE SELF-DEFENSE CLAIM
Alexander has claimed she fired a warning shot at her estranged husband, Rico Gray, and wasn’t trying to hit Gray or his two children from a previous relationship. She has said the incident, which happened days after she’d given birth, began when Gray accused her of infidelity and questioned whether the newborn child was his. Alexander told him to leave and locked herself in the bathroom until he broke through the door, grabbed her by the neck and shoved her to the floor. She ran into the garage but found she could not leave because the garage door would not open, according to the report. She got a gun from the glove compartment of a car in the garage, went back into the house and when Gray saw her, she said he charged, saying he was going to kill her. Alexander fired the gun. Alexander said it was a warning shot. Prosecutors dispute that and say the bullet hit the wall, not the ceiling, and it could have killed Gray or his children.
Mantei previously said that Gray’s children have suffered because of the incident, and they are the real victims in this case. Alexander cited the Stand Your Ground law to justify firing the shot. It allows the use of deadly force instead of retreating if the person is afraid for his or her life. But that defense was rejected by Circuit Judge Elizabeth Senterfitt, who ruled that Alexander’s choice to go back into the house to face her husband was not consistent with someone who was in “genuine fear of his or her life.”
At one point, prosecutors offered Alexander a prison sentence of three years before her original trial, but she turned that down and chose to go to trial.