A Reverse George Zimmerman?

Marissa Alexander deserves the benefit of the doubt, not 20 years in prison.

A year before George Zimmerman was acquitted in the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin at a townhouse complex in Sanford, Florida, Marissa Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a shot into the ceiling during a 2010 confrontation with her husband at their home in Jacksonville. Since Alexander is black, critics of the Zimmerman verdict cite the contrasting outcomes as evidence of racial bias in the application of Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law.

The reality is more complicated, starting with the fact that Zimmerman, although frequently described as white, has a Peruvian mother and an Afro-Peruvian great-grandfather. What's more, Florida's "stand your ground" law, which was adopted in 2005, played no role in Zimmerman's defense and was arguably irrelevant in Alexander's trial as well. The factor that really mattered is one that Florida's justice system shares with those of every state: the presumption of innocence. Zimmerman benefited from it, while a recent appeals court ruling suggests Alexander did not.

Last week, in a decision ordering a new trial for Alexander, Florida's 1st District Court of Appeal said one of Circuit Judge James Daniel's jury instructions erroneously shifted the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defense. Alexander claimed she fired a warning shot because she feared her husband, Rico Gray, would seriously injure or kill her. Daniel's instruction implied the jurors could accept that defense only if they concluded beyond a reasonable doubt that Gray was about to commit aggravated battery.

"By including the phrase 'beyond a reasonable doubt' when giving the instruction on the aggravated battery prong of the self-defense instruction," the appeals court said, "the trial court improperly transmuted the prosecution's burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt into a burden on the appellant to prove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt." The difference is crucial: While Alexander may not have been able to erase all doubts about her account, she had ample evidence to create doubt about the prosecution's.

Gray had a history of physically abusing Alexander, and on the day of the encounter that led to her arrest he flew into a jealous rage. In a 2010 deposition he conceded that "she just didn't want me to put my hands on her anymore, so she did what she feel like she have to do to make sure she wouldn't get hurt."

Later Gray changed his story, portraying Alexander as the aggressor. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Senterfitt apparently believed this version, rejecting Alexander's motion for immunity from prosecution in a pretrial ruling that copied the prosecution's narrative almost verbatim.

At that stage, however, the burden was on Alexander to prove her self-defense claim by a preponderance of the evidence. During her trial, the burden shifted to the prosecution, which had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she did not act in self-defense.

Hence the jurors, who deliberated for only 12 minutes, could have acquitted Alexander even if they deemed her story less plausible than Gray's. Similarly, Zimmerman's acquittal did not necessarily mean the jury was thoroughly convinced his shooting of Martin was justified.

Since Zimmerman claimed Martin tackled and pinned him, he did not assert the right to stand your ground when attacked in public, the defining feature of Florida's law. Likewise Alexander, who claimed her husband threatened her in the home they shared. Under a decision the Florida Supreme Court issued six years before the state legislature enacted the "stand your ground" law, women in that situation have no duty to retreat either.

If racial bias played a role in Alexander's case, the problem seems unrelated to the 2005 changes in Florida's self-defense law. Data collected by the Tampa Bay Times indicate that since then blacks making self-defense claims have fared as well as whites.

The Alexander case does clearly indict another aspect of Florida law: the state's absurdly harsh mandatory minimum sentences. Whether you believe her story or not, this woman does not deserve two decades in prison.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    It seems more evident that both prosecutions benefited from idiotic judges, but in the end Zimmerman's jury overcame stupid behavior from the bench.

  • RightNut||

    Wait I'm a bit confused. She fired her gun into the ceiling of her own home as a warning, and they are giving her 20 years? Am I missing something or is this story really that absurd?

  • Rrabbit||

    Some versions of the story claim that she went to the garage to get the gun, and then returned to her own home to fire the gun. 20 years still absurd for that.

    But then, what about Florida is not absurd?

  • bersc52||

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  • plusafdotcom||

  • Brett L||

    Not her own home. She hadn't lived there in 3 months. She was there when he got home. Basically in violation of her side of the restraining order, which states that any contact she has to initiate with him will be mediated by a deputy. Also left out was the part where she violated the standard No Contact conditions of her bail and confronted and physically assaulted Mr. Gray. Both after the initial incident and this assault HE, not SHE called 911 to report it. I would say that constitutes enough evidence for a jury trial rather than a SYG dimissal, and Sullum has left this information out continuously.

    That said, she deserves a new trial because procedurew were violated.

  • ||

    Thank you, that makes slightly more sense. Still think 20 years is an absurd sentance to give someone when nobody was injured.

  • DJF||

    She hurt the prosecutors feelings when she did not accept a plea deal.

  • emi1002||

    That is not true...It was her home. He came over to get his children that they had together. He disregarded the restraining order. When he called 911 he told dispatch that he saw a text in her phone and got aggresive with her. But, the main thing the story left out was she had a 9 day old baby in the house. Her baby is now 3 and does not know her mom. Every one focuses on SYG and they are not aware of florida's 10-20-life law, which is what she was tried under. In Florida if you commit a felony with a gun you get 10 years mandatory for pulling it out, 20 years mandatory for firing it and life if you hit someone even if the injury is not life threatning. This law includes FIRST time offenders. That is a horrible law and that needs to be addressed also. So who gets to use SYG and who has to use 10-20-life. That is the real problem.

  • Alice Bowie||

    Yes. It was her home.

    And, I'm not the bit surprised that they threw the book at her.

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  • plusafdotcom||

  • Rrabbit||

    Whether you believe her story or not, this woman does not deserve two decades in prison.


    Apart from that, Zimmerman was able to collect a six digit amount for his defense fund. So much that the Zimmermans were thinking loud about what they could buy with all that money.

    Did Alexander have similar funds available during the first trial? Probably not ...

    One reason more black Americans are found guilty in court is that they cannot afford to pay for a good defense team. Which is sick, the law should not effectively be "if you do not have 200k, nor can raise them, you are guilty as charged".

  • Not an Economist||

    The reason Zimmerman got the money is because the victim's family lawyer released an old photo of the victim to gin up support for a murder charge, implying the victim was just walking home when Zimmerman killed him. Then a bunch of racially obsessed hucksters, charged down to Florida to demand justice and that raised the visibility of the case.

    This case no one knew about until it was over. The prosecutor in this case and the Zimmerman case are the same.

  • Rich||

    The reality is more complicated, starting with the fact that Zimmerman, although frequently described as white, has a Peruvian mother and an Afro-Peruvian great-grandfather.

    That *is* complicated. I thought Zimmerman is Hispanic. Also, what about his *other* great-grandfathers?

    For entertainment, check out these examples of how people self-ID and categorize themselves in the U.S. Census. (Click on the faces.)

    Seriously, this racial bullshit can't end soon enough.

  • SugarFree||

    For entertainment, check out these examples of how people self-ID and categorize themselves in the U.S. Census.

    So the changing face of America is not very attractive and is completely devoid of emotion? [shiver]

  • Rich||

    "Please try to look pleasant. After the photo is taken you may resume your natural expression."

  • SugarFree||

    The free space on the bingo card is freaking me out. I think I killed one of those with a flamethrower in Fallout 3.

  • WTF||

    Seriously, this racial bullshit can't end soon enough.

    But, it's already ended - the election of Obama has ushered in a post-racial America!

  • wareagle||

    "afro-peruvian." Are you fucking kidding me? Just how balkanized can we become in describing folks -

  • SweatingGin||

    Would that be Mestizo?

  • Rich||

    I am amazed the "Afro-" tag is accepted in the first place. We don't say "North Americo-", do we? At least have the decency to say "Zairo-" or "Botswano-" or whatever. To lump these into a *continental* label is -- dare I say it? -- RACIST!

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Well, the fact is that for many of those folks, they have no clue which country in Africa their ancestors were abducted from.

    Jus' sayin'

  • Rich||

    Note to self: Use less-subtle sarcasm.

    Another aspect to this stuff: If it's so darned important to categorize people, at least be scientific and use DNA analysis.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Don't flatter yourself. There was neither subtlety or sarcasm in your post; you were merely playing "Let's Laugh at the Mulattoes!" while hiding behind an unwarranted sense of self-righteousness in pretending "I don't care about labels."

    We "heavily-mixed" folks have just as every right to be interested in the totality of our heritage and express it fully. Someone stating their ethnic heritage is "Afro-Peruvian" or "Black-Korean-German" or "Hinjew" is no more or less obnoxious than someone describing him or herself as "English-Scottish-Welsh" or "A little of everyplace in Europe".

  • Ann N||

    the issue is when ppl think their genetic nuance is entitled to an honered place in public education.

    'not knowing' has been redefined as ignorance. the obvious implication being if you dont know the details of particular races/cultures, then you are a troglodyte, or simply a 'racist'.

    there is no mandatory curiculum and you arent entitled to having others educated about your heritage. other ppls knowledge is their choice. fuck off 99% of black america.

    how would you feel if we ran around trying to tell everyone about irish history and irish struggles and concerns, and act like there is something wrong with ppl for not taking it seriously? oh you dont know we have leperchauns? how dare you, you ignorant asshole. you need some diversity training.

    welcome to black history month. welcome to every discussion i've had with a black person on race. welcome to pretty much every black comedian.

    at times black america goes out of its way to defy social norms as an opportunity to educate others about their culture.

    its simply the wrong way to share something that is important to you. this is how you stuff a dick down someones throat, not share intimacy and respect. if it was about understanding and not pushing a real dogma it would be voluntary. but this 'sharing' is done at cost to others, either in time or comfort.

  • Ann N||

    i'll leave you with 1 last thought: your ideological cellmate is white supremecy. that is who wraps their identity in their race. "I'm a strong black man" that is a deep and moving selfconcept for a majority of aspiring black males. defined by race just like the kkk. kkk is more concentrated, but its a fringe element, whereas 'strong black man' is mainstreamed in black america. its the exact same material.

    what galls me is the audacity of expectation and entitlement for 1 group above others. and its pushed with language of 'equality'.

  • ||

    I have a little trouble with a woman, having been brutalized in the past by her ex, being charged with defending herself and her home. Even if she went to the garage and returned with a gun, it was her house, she had already told him to leave, felt threatened by him, and had a restraining order against him. Should she not be able to move freely around her house in safety? If her safety in her home is compromised does she not have the right to restore that safety?

    Florida does have a castle doctrine.
    "The state of Florida has such a strong Castle Doctrine that the dwelling being protected does not need to have a roof; can be mobile or immobile; and can be as temporary as a tent. - See more at: http://source.southuniversity......1ZODV.dpuf

    This travesty of a case is nothing more than a crusade against self-defense by gun grabbers. Alexander should be freed, her record expunged and paid for her troubles. Angela Corley should be fired and disbarred.

  • ||

    "...being charged after defending her home. " Ooops.

    And I should add that the 20 yr. sentence for behavior in which no one was hurt and no one suffered property damage is outrageous. Just more evidence of it being part of an effort to intimidate gun owners into submission.

  • Brett L||

    Again. NOT in her own home. She had not lived in that house in 3 months, and it was clearly HIS, not HER house. Sullum has always elided these relevant facts. The story is of two idiots who continue to make bad decisions about each other and which one you believe.

  • Gray Ghost||

    Where did the warning shot go? I'd thought I'd read that the bullet went into the wall next to Gray not the ceiling, though after going through the wall, the bullet continued into the ceiling of the adjoining room. (FWIW, the concurring opinion from the appellate court agrees with me). Further, I had thought the bullet hole was about head-height: i.e., she meant to hit him and missed.

    Really, this case should be an example of how mandatory minimum sentences are a travesty, not an example of how Florida's Stand Your Ground laws are messed up.

  • Brett L||

    Exactly. Does she deserve 20 years? Probably not, but to say this is an open and shut case of racial/sexist injustice is crazy. She definitely deserves a trial by a jury who have been properly instructed in the law, which she did not get, but beyond that there is no more travesty for this incident than any other where a person got 20 years for discharging a gun in commission of a felony that otherwise results in a suspended sentence.

  • XM||

    The question is, did the threat rise to such a level where self defense was warranted?

    The boyfriend does have a history of violence, but he didn't actually hurt her. He and his kids sitting down and minding their own business when Alexander returned and fired the "warning shot". Which narrowly missed his head. National Review mentioned that the couple met AFTER the incident to concoct story to tell the jury.

    If self defense doesn't apply, then she's guilty of SOMETHING. But she probably doesn't deserve a 20 year sentence.

  • Tim||

    Last time I was in Florida I made the mistake of checking the local news: bodies found here, there, shootings, rape. It was like going on vacation with Warty.

  • DJF||

    I have read that she was actually in her husbands home, anyone know the facts?

  • Brett L||

    If you read the Appeals Court decision, the concurring minority opinion cites the prosecution's case in which she was in a home she hadn't lived in for two years, ran past her former boyfried to the garage when both the front and back doors were in reach, couldn't explain why the garage door (that worked before and after the incident) malfunctioned, etc.

    I am not saying she didn't fear for her life. I am not saying he didn't threaten, assault, or even batter her. I am saying that SYG was bullshit. This would have gone to trial no matter the race or sex.

  • Brett L||

    Two years should be three months. I got distracted with someone talking to me.

  • DJF||

    Thanks. I

    was suspicious of the news stories because most did not mention whose house it was. If they don’t talk about something then usually its because it does not fit the narrative they are pushing.

  • prolefeed||

    I'd say going into your ex's house, violating a restraining order, and shooting at your ex's head but missing deserves some prison time to contemplate some poor life choices. Certainly not 20 years, but some time.

    That being said, she deserves a new trial, because the jury instructions tried to put the burden of proof on her.

  • Mongo||

    A Reverse Zimmerman? - I thought that wrasslin' hold was illegal.

  • BS||

    This is the "full story", as writted by the National Review. It would appear that indeed, Mr. Sullum has left out some important details, although the NRO article paints both as fairly bad actors.


  • JeremyR||

    Yeah, that's quite a bit different than what Mr. Sullum presents.

    He should be ashamed of himself.

  • ||

    Had to take a dog to the vet and missed the rest of the thread.

    I am amending my earlier comment for the record. I did not know it was his house and not hers. What the hell was she doing there?

    I am not making any further judgement on this case. Clearly I am not clear on the facts so I retract what I said before.

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  • Stephdumas||

    I don't know if that one count as a reverse George Zimmerman who happened in Rochester, NY about Roderick Scott and Christopher Cervini in 2009. http://rochester.ynn.com/conte.....ot-guilty/

  • Will Nonya||

    For god's sake man, if its not racial bias and its not an evil law then how are people expected to make headlines out of it?

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  • Jinx||

    I'm surprised the author didn't mention that Angela Corey, the same State Attorney who led the Trayvon Martin case, led the Marissa Alexander case. She pushed for the maximum possible sentence after Alexander rejected a 3 year plea deal.

  • Todd Gilbert||

    Very big difference. Zimmerman was attacked and in the process of getting his head bashed in. She on the other hand went out to her car to get the gun and then return into the house. She also fired into the wall which the bullets went into the other room luckily missing her kids that were in the room.

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