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Florida's Stand Your Ground Law: A Tale of Two Cases
Are All Self Defense Cases Treated The Same?
No doubt, by now we have all heard about the case making headlines; a young, unarmed boy was shot and killed by a neighborhood watchman as he made his way home after buying candy. We witnessed public outrage when the killer was not immediately arrested after taking the life. We watched as civic leaders questioned the government's motives for failing to hold the assailant responsible for his actions. The outrage lied in the fact that he was not immediately arrested, tried by a court, and exonerated by a jury of his peers before being allowed to continue living as a free man. Instead, as it played out, we learned that the State failed to arrest this man and asserted to have its "hands tied" when the defendant claimed self defense. To most of us it was unheard of that by merely declaring self defense he could not be arrested until after a full probable cause investigation was completed. Many of us were perplexed at how Florida law (776.013) protected the killer from immediate arrest at the moment he claimed it was self defense.
Has Florida's Stand Your Ground law always been applied in this manner? Has it always been the state's position to postpone an arrest in cases where the defendant claims self defense until after a lengthy investigation is complete? Does the state apply the law equally to all defendants who attempt to use this defense? Before we answer these questions let us examine the case of Marissa Alexander.
On August 1, 2010, just nine days after giving birth to her premature daughter, Marissa Alexander was under attack by her husband, Rico Gray. The couple no longer lived together, but she had returned to pay the rent for the Jacksonville, Florida home they had once shared, which she was still personally responsible for. Alexander was in fear for he safety and had gone to live with a family member during the pregnancy. While in the house, she showed Gray some pictures of their baby that she had stored on her cell phone.
While Alexander used the bathroom Gray began looking through her phone and discovered a text message between Alexander and her first husband. Gray became enraged, began strangling her, and threatened her life saying "if he could not have her, aint nobody going to have her." She was able to escape into a locked garage after he used his body to restrain her. Unable to leave through the garage, she recovered a handgun from her car, returned inside the house and begged him to leave, but he would not, so fearing for her life, she fired one warning shot into the air. Gray immediately left the house unharmed with two children who were also inside. Alexander told the police she was in fear for her life and fired the shot in self defense. She did not want to hurt him, she just wanted him to leave. There was no postponement of arrest pending investigation in this case. Instead, she was arrested, denied immunity under the Stand Your Ground law, convicted after a 12 minute deliberation, and was given a mandatory 20 year sentence for firing that warning shot.
This was not the first time Alexander was forced to fend off attacks by Gray. In fact, at the time of the attack, Alexander had a protective injunction against Gray for domestic violence stemming from repeated abuse at the hands of her husband. Alexander had been beaten during her pregnancy, and in 2009, the abuse had become so severe that she had to be hosipalized for injuries she sustained to her head and neck. Alexander was a documented victim of escalating domestic violence by her husband, Rico Gray, and fearing the worst, she decided to protect herself. She stood her ground.
Is It A Stand Your Ground Case?
It is worth noting that the prosecuting attorney in this case, Angela Corey, is the same prosecutor in the Zimmerman case. Corey initially offered Alexander a plea deal of 3 years in exchange for a guilty plea. Alexander refused the deal, believing she would be exonerated once evidence of self defense came to light. However, the court denied her immunity under Stand Your Ground, saying she chose to reenter the house with a gun. After the conviction, Corey told reporters that Alexander acted out of anger, not fear. Would she have said this if Gray were killed? Critics of the Court's decision say this ruling teaches one powerful lesson to Florida gun owners who choose to defend themselves, shoot to kill! They say, if you are ever accosted and are in fear for your life, place two to the chest and one in the head. Do not have mercy on your assailant by firing a warning shot, as Alexander did. They say, a warning shot tells the court that you were not scared enough, and they could deny your immunity. How else could a domestic violence victim, who spared her assailant's life and did not cause injury be denied immunity and be sentenced to 20 years, while George Zimmerman is afforded immunity and released on bond after killing someone?
As we wait for Zimmerman's trial to progress we should take note of one glaring similarity in these cases, re-engagement with the victim by the defendant. In this case, Alexander escaped Gray by fleeing into the garage, where she retrieved her gun before returning into the house. Similarly, George Zimmerman, who was initially following the boy in a vehicle, left the vehicle and initiated a foot pursuit, even after being told not to. This pursuit led to the fatal confrontation. In her findings, Judge Elizabeth Senterfitt wrote that Alexander's case was not a self defense case because she could have escaped through the garage instead of going back into the house with the gun.
As of this writing Zimmerman's attorney was preparing to file a motion for immunity based on Florida's Stand Your Ground law. They are also expected to file a motion to dismiss based on the evidence that has been leaked out to the media. Will the judge grant Zimmerman immunity from prosecution and dismiss the case, or will he find that Stand Your Ground does not apply because Zimmerman could have prevented the altercation by immediately stopping the pursuit as he was directed? Despite the evidence of superficial wounds to Zimmerman from an altercation that nobody disputes occurred, the vital question is who started the fight. Who initiated the contact that led to the altercation? Was Zimmerman targeted and attacked by a dangerous street thug who was high and under the influence of the munchies, or was the boy he hunted down merely fighting for his life after being ambushed? Which one of these two were standing his ground?