Monday, November 18, 2013

Marissa Alexander gets a retrial

Marissa Alexander has been granted a retrial in a case that has gotten national attention. Alexander shot a gun at her husband, whom she claimed was threatening her life. Alexander also claimed that he had abused her physically. It was her first offense. A jury found Alexander guilty of discharging a gun in the commission of a felony. Under Florida law, this conviction carries a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison.

Florida's mandatory sentencing laws have filled its prisons to overflowing. The first such laws passed in 1979. At that time, Florida had about 10,000 inmates. In 2010, it had over 100,000. The incidence of crime has been falling in the state and the U.S. for many years, yet still the prison population increases.

African-Americans outnumber whites in Florida prisons 4.4 to 1. In the general population, blacks represent only 16 percent of the population.

There is a remarkable disparity in Florida's gun laws. Under its "stand your ground" law, a woman has a right to kill someone if she believes her life is in danger. But under Florida's mandatory sentencing law, if a woman does not believe her life is in danger, even if she misses entirely, as in this case, she can be sent to jail for 20 years. The question arises, how can you tell whether she thought her life was in danger or not, especially if she claims she did think it was?

An appeals court granted a retrial in this case because the judge mistakenly told the jury that Alexander had to prove she was acting in self-defense, but the law actually requires the prosecution to prove that she was not defending herself.

A comparison of this case with the Trayvon Martin shooting is instructive. In the Martin case, the shooter was declared not to be the aggressor, even though he was following Martin for several minutes before catching up to him. In the Alexander case, the defendant was declared the aggressor after she walked from the garage, where the gun was stored, to the living room, where the shooting occurred. Both defendants claimed they feared for their lives.

Martin's killer was acquitted. Alexander will likely have a chance at a plea bargain during her second trial, and may end up serving very little prison time beyond the 3 years she has already spent in prison.

Laws should be reasonable. A reasonable person should be able to tell whether a law has been broken or not. Laws should not be able to be twisted so that a white man with a good lawyer goes free while a poor African-American woman goes to prison after committing similar, if not identical, offenses.

The Alexander case is hardly the only abuse of a mandatory sentencing law, but it is a blatant one.

No comments: