GAINESVILLE, FLA. – FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) Florida Project Director Greg Newburn today applauded a decision by Florida’s First District Court of Appeal granting Marissa Alexander a new trial on her conviction for aggravated assault. Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison under Florida’s “10-20-Life” gun sentencing law. The appeals court ruled that the trial judge had erroneously instructed the jury on what Alexander – who had cited evidence of prolonged physical abuse at the hands of her husband – had to prove to establish she had acted in self-defense.
“Marissa Alexander’s 20 year mandatory minimum sentence shocked the conscience of all reasonable people,” Newburn said. Citing the cases of Orville Lee Wollard and Ronald Thompson, who were also sentenced to 20 years for firing warning shots, Newburn added, “Alexander’s case is one of many that show the devastating unintended consequences of the 10-20-Life law.”
Newburn said that Alexander rejected a plea offer of three years in prison, but was sentenced to 20 years because of 10-20-Life. He added, “The prosecutor in Marissa Alexander’s case felt three years was sufficient to protect public safety when he thought he could get a guilty plea from her. But when she went to trial and lost, the judge had no choice but to sentence her to 20 years. In other words, Alexander was sentenced to 17 additional years in prison because she exercised her constitutional right to a fair trial. That kind of trial penalty is indefensible.”
Though Alexander’s case sparked questions from some about “Stand Your Ground,” and whether Florida’s self-defense laws are racially biased, Newburn argued the real issue is Florida’s mandatory minimum laws. “This issue transcends race – it’s about individualized justice. Ms. Alexander is black, but Lee Wollard and Ronald Thompson are white. Rather, this is another, powerful example of how inflexible sentencing laws prevent courts from considering highly relevant circumstances, such as whether the offender is a hardened criminal or a first-time offender and whether someone was motivated by malice or genuine fear,” said Newburn.
FAMM supports legislation to reform 10-20-Life by allowing judicial discretion in self-defense cases. Newburn argues that mandatory minimums make particularly bad sense in such cases. “Self-defense isn’t like robbery or murder, where criminal intent is obvious. It’s not always obvious whether an act was made in self-defense or with criminal intent, and reasonable people disagree about which is which. In those cases, judges should be able consider the relevant facts and determine a proper sentence.”