Mandatory Minimum Absurdity in Florida
Courtesy of Families Against Mandatory Minimums:
FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums) President Julie Stewart today called on Florida lawmakers to repeal the state’s “10-20-Life” automatic prison sentence for assault with a deadly weapon without intent to kill. The call comes as Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, prepares to be sentenced for a 2010 incident in which she fired a gun into the ceiling of her house to persuade her abusive husband to leave.
“A lot of attention has been paid to Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law and far too little to the state’s extreme, one-size-fits-all sentencing laws,” Ms. Stewart said. “Less than three years ago, Orville Lee Wollard, a lawful gun owner, fired a warning shot in his home to chase off a young man who had been abusing his teenage daughter. After Wollard rejected a plea deal and a jury rejected Wollard’s self-defense claim, a Florida judge was forced by the state’s mandatory minimum sentencing law for assault to send Wollard to prison for 20 years. Mr. Wollard’s judge stated that he thought the sentence was excessive, but said his hands were tied.
“In the coming weeks, Marissa Alexander, who was also found guilty of assault with a deadly weapon, will likely be sentenced to the same 20-year mandatory minimum prison term. While reasonable people can disagree on whether Mr. Wollard or Ms. Alexander deserve any prison time for their conduct, no one can honestly believe that these were the types of cases the legislature had in mind when it passed the 10-20-Life automatic gun sentence,” Stewart said.
According to press reports and court records, Ms. Alexander’s husband, Rico Gray, abused her on more than one occasion before the incident that led to her conviction. Mr. Gray described one incident of abuse in a deposition, saying, “And the third incident (with Alexander) we was staying together and I pushed her back and she fell in the bathtub and hit her head and I– you know, by the time I ran downstairs and got in my car to leave, you know, that’s the time I went to jail, the police picked me up down the street.”
In that same deposition, Mr. Gray admitted that he threatened his wife’s safety on the day she fired the gun into the ceiling. He also admitted that Ms. Alexander never aimed her gun at him (or his two children who were also present). According to Mr. Gray, after she told him to leave her house and he refused, she discharged the gun into the ceiling and no one was hurt. He later called the police and told them what had happened. Ms. Alexander was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault (one count related to her husband, and two more for her stepsons). Ms. Alexander strongly maintains her innocence.
Greg Newburn, director of FAMM’s Florida project, said, “Based on everything we have heard to this point, we believe that sending Marissa Alexander to prison for 20 years would be a tremendous injustice and a colossal waste of Florida taxpayers’ hard-earned money.
Reason’s Jacob Sullum has more on Ms. Alexander’s case:
A judge rejected her [Alexander's] pretrial motion to dismiss the charges against her under the self-defense statute, saying she could have escaped the house instead of firing the warning shot.
Unlike George Zimmerman’s shooting of Trayvon Martin, Alexander’s case actually involves the right to stand your ground—or, more precisely, the “castle doctrine,” which says people have no duty to retreat when attacked in their homes. In 2005, when the Florida legislature eliminated the duty to retreat in public places, it also broadened the castle doctrine, creating a presumption that a person has “a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm” if he “knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.” It makes an exception to this presumption if “the person against whom the defensive force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling,” but only when “there is not an injunction for protection from domestic violence or a written pretrial supervision order of no contact against that person,” as there was in this case. Alexander’s situation seems to be exactly the sort that was supposed to be covered by these provisions, which makes the dismissal of her pretrial motion, based on the premise that she could and should have retreated, all the more puzzling.
There are two major issues here: whether Alexander’s use of force was justified under Florida’s law and whether, assuming it wasn’t, a 20-year prison sentence is just punishment given the circumstances. The answer to the first question seems to be yes, and the answer to the second one is certainly no.
Unfortunately, this case presents just another example of how mandatory minimum laws subvert the legitimacy of the criminal justice system.
Image via Reason