updated 7/25/2013 8:48:19 PM ET 2013-07-26T00:48:19

A Florida woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she says was a warning shot is appealing her conviction, as the law on which she's based her defense comes under fire.

Stand Your Ground laws will be in the national spotlight as the appeals process begins in the case of Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she says was a warning shot during an altercation with her husband.

The law, which exists in various forms in some 25 states, allows for the use of lethal force without the necessity of trying to retreat. (Under traditional self defense, a person who feels threatened must back away if he or she has the option, rather than resorting to lethal force.) Alexander’s attorneys argued that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law should have protected the then 31-year-old from prosecution when she fired a warning shot into the wall. At the time, defense attorneys argued, Alexander felt threatened by her husband, who she said had a history of abuse.

The state argued that Alexander could have left the house during the argument instead of retrieving her gun and coming back inside. A jury convicted her on three counts of aggravated assault last year. Because the crime involved a firearm that was discharged, Alexander was subject to a minimum sentence of 20 years under Florida’s “10-20-Life” law.

Faith Gay, one of Alexander’s attorneys, said on MSNBC Thursday that oral argument hadn’t yet been set, but that they were looking forward to making three “meritorious” challenges in the First District Court of Appeals.

“One to the pretrial Stand Your Ground hearing,” said Gay, which defense attorneys argue should have given Alexander immunity. Another “to Ms. Alexander’s ability to consult with her counsel during the trial, and the prohibitions based on that.” And third, she said, to the jury instructions, which she believes “reversed the burden of proof” and “made too much of an evidentiary requirement” on Alexander during the trial.

Stand Your Ground and Alexander’s case have received enhanced attention in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s trial, which resulted in a not-guilty verdict on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. Though Zimmerman’s legal team did not cite Stand Your Ground in their defense, the law did come into play in both the investigation of the shooting and the trial.

Because Zimmerman said he shot Martin in self-defense after the teen attacked him, police did not arrest Zimmerman for almost two months after the shooting. Stand Your Ground was also included in instructions to the jury and factored into the acquittal, one juror said. Zimmerman was acquitted of second degree murder and manslaughter charges.

To many critics, the difference between the verdicts of Alexander, who is African-American, and Zimmerman, whose father is white and whose mother is Hispanic, speaks to the racial disparity in the criminal justice system and suggests a bias in how Stand Your Ground laws are applied. Part of this comparison, said The Grio’s Joy-Ann Reid on MSNBC Thursday, is rooted in the fact that both cases shared the same prosecutor, Angela Corey. But the biggest irony, she said, is that Alexander’s team is attempting to use the Stand Your Ground law, while many of her supporters are blasting it.

“[Marissa Alexander] is not one of those who’s saying Stand Your Ground is a problem in this case; she’s saying, ‘No, I want to use Stand Your Ground as a defense,’” said Reid. “What they’re saying is that the court erred in not giving Marissa Alexander that immunity.”

A number a studies have yielded mixed results on the role race plays in Stand Your Ground cases. According to a Tampa Bay Times analysis, 73% of defendants were able to successfully use Stand Your Ground to escape penalty in cases where the victim was black. That percentage dropped to 59% when the victim was white.

“The fact that the race of the deceased being African-American means you’re more likely to get off I think does speak to a racial disparity in Stand Your Ground,” said Reid.

What the Alexander and Zimmerman cases both show, said Reid, is that Stand Your Ground “doesn’t work in a common sense way.”

Editor’s note: George Zimmerman has sued NBC Universal for defamation. The company strongly denies the allegation.

Video: Florida woman sentenced to 20 years for firing warning shot

  1. Closed captioning of: Florida woman sentenced to 20 years for firing warning shot

    >>> now the not guilty verdict in the george zimmerman trial is putting a new spotlight on the case of a woman sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot into the air. for more than one year marisa alexander has been sitting in prison after a jury found her guilty of aggravated assault. she used the stand your ground for her defense . joining me is faith gay, one of the attorneys for marisa alexander and previously incorrectly said her mother would be here but you're her attorney not her mother. now what's the latest in marisa 's case right now?

    >> currently it's up on appeal in the first district court of appeal. oral argument hasn't been set yet but there's been full briefing and we're awaiting to hear if there's oral argument before the court of appeals .

    >> what are the option then that the court of appeals has before them.

    >> the court has a wide range of options as it always does. it can send the case back for rehearing on the stand your ground defense . it can reverse the jury verdict out right. it can affirm. it can issue a ruling about the sentence. i want has a wide variety of options whether points raised by the appellant or the court itself has its own view of certain issues.

    >> what do you make of the attention this case is receiving in the wake of the george zimmerman murder trial? downing the comparisons are appropriate?

    >> well, as her appellate counsel we wouldn't comment on the political or publicity swirl that's going on with regard to the zimmerman casing right now. we believe we have meritorious issues and we look forward a chance to put those issues before the district court of appeals.

    >> of course, marisa 's defense is she was firing a warning shot to a man she was afraid of she had previously taken out a restraining order out against but what prosecutor in this case said she was acting in anger. what's your position on the specifics of this case and the evidence to support that?

    >> again, at this point in time we would rely on our briefs and wouldn't want to go beyond that since the case hasn't been argued and we're eager to get the case in front of the district of appeal. we have three challenges one to the pretrial stand your ground hearing. secondly to miss alexander 's ability to consult with her counsel during the trial and prohibitions placed on that and third to the jury instructions which put too much pressure and made too much of evidentiary requirement on miss alexander in the trial.

    >> now at one point marisa alexander had the option of taking a plea bar begin. she decided instead to go through trial and the jury convicted her in less than 15 minutes . why didn't she take the plea agreement ?

    >> wouldn't comment on that on miss alexander 's decision there. we're strictly in the case now to press forward on four or five issues on appeal which we think are highly meritorious, including the misapplication of stand your ground prior to the trial.

    >> all right. faith gay, thank you so much for the updates on that case. let's bring in joann reed. she's been following boston these cases very closely. so, what do you make of the comparisons of these two case. they are similar in some ways and different also. are the comparisons fair and does it reflect racial disparities.

    >> one comparison it's the same prosecutor. you did have this very vigorous aggressive prosecution of marisa alexander by the prosecutor and the lot of people see a less full throated effort in the zimmerman case. cory and her team are from out of town. they were trying the zimmerman case in another county. she was the special prosecutor . the biggest irony in this case is marisa stand certificate attempting to use the stand your ground defense . she's not one of those saying stand your ground is a problem. no i want to use stand your ground as a defense . what they are saying at least marisa alexander side this isn't a case where i want to throw away stand your ground they want to use it because they are saying the court erred.

    >> now what prosecutors are alleging is that she left her house, she went to a car, she got a gun, brought it back into the house and fired a shot not only in the direction of her husband but he was standing there with their two young children, two of the three of their young children. do you think this is the right case for people who are against stand your ground , for people who believe that george zimmerman was improperly acquitted, do you think this is the right case for those groups to rally around.

    >> because marisa was charged with using it on her children. it's a case that shows you stan your ground is flawed in the sense that something in common sense would tell you a person who says they were being abused, she had to go back out of the house to go through the front door and this man threatened to abuse her. i want sounds like a classic stand your ground case but she was not able to avail herself that defense . in the zimmerman case he pursued trayvon martin and still able to get off not using the fair mative defense but what jury instructions gave the jurors no way out of acquitting him. stand your ground doesn't work in a common sense way. the other thing that the lawyers are saying her case shows mandatory minimums are a huge problem. the judge had no discretion in this case where no one was injured no, one was hurt or killed she gets 20 years mandatory in prison and a lot of people are saying this is also a case where mandatory minimums should be looked at.

    >> you spoke to her first husband and her 3-year-old just turned 3 her youngest child. i can't imagine your child celebrating a birthday and you're in prison for that. what has her ex-husband told you

    >> lincoln alexander , who is the father of her two older children, they were previously married and he's still a big support he of her said her spirits are relatively high because the public support and because of the close family support. she's still able to see her two older children not the two children who were in the home. she hasn't had any contact at all with her daughter who just turned 3 years old on tuesday. because her former his has full custody of the child and there have been issues even with the family being able to see the child. so she's really yearning for that bond with her daughter that she hasn't been able to form at all. you have to remember the child was less than a year old, few months old when this incident took place. she's basically been incarcerated the whole time.

    >> as a mother that is to be difficult. going back to the stand your ground , tampa bay times found evidence to support claims there's racial imbalance in how those are applied. with a black victim 73% of defendants faced no penalty. but with a white victim 59% faced no penalty. when the paper focused on the race of the killer in fatal cases black defendants went free 66% of the time compared to whites 61% of the time. a lot of study on this. what do you think the numbers tell us?

    >> that second set of statistics about the race of the shooter has to do with the fact that the vast majority of shootings of murders happen within the same race. so when a white person is killed it's most often by someone who is white. when a black person is killed it's most often the victim is the black. the race of the deceased being african-american means you'll get off speaks to a racial disparity. the other big issue with stand your ground if you shoot someone and they live you are less likely to be availed the defense . if you shoot someone and they die you have a very good chance of getting off regardless of the circumstances of the shooting, regardless of whether you started the altercation. there have been cases in florida where someone has chased down the decedent, shot them while the person was on the ground and still got off on stand your ground . stand your ground is a shoot to kill law some say it encourages a fatal shot and less -- it encourages you to be less measured if you have a gun. streets less safe than more safe.


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