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.