A Jacksonville woman serving a 20-year prison sentence for firing a warning shot in self-defense during a domestic dispute with her husband is due in court Wednesday to seek release on bail while awaiting a new trial.
And if a bill sponsored by state Rep. Neil Combee passes the Florida Legislature’s 2014 session, she might be among the last defendants in Florida to go to trial under what Combee calls a misapplication of a law intended to keep violent criminals behind bars.
Jacksonville resident Marissa Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault in March 2012 for shooting a gun she legally owned to frighten her husband, who she said was threatening to kill her during a fight in their home in August 2010.
She received the 20-year sentence under Florida’s 10-20-Life law, which requires a mandatory sentence of 10 years for those convicted of displaying a gun during the commission of a crime, 20 years for firing it, and 25 years to life for shooting someone, regardless of whether the shooting is fatal.
In an interview Tuesday, Alexander’s attorney Bruce Zimet of Fort Lauderdale said his client was convicted because of flawed jury instructions.
Those instructions told jurors it was Alexander’s burden to prove self-defense, when the burden should have been on prosecutors to prove she didn’t, Zimet said.
“She had to prove self-defense, and that’s just not what the law is,” said Zimet, who took the case pro bono in 2012 with attorney Fath Gay after it was brought to his attention by advocates for battered women.
On Tuesday, Combee said the lawmakers who passed 10-20-Life could not have intended it to be used for people acting in self-defense.
“We’ve got a person in prison for 20 years and hasn’t really harmed anybody?” said Combee, a Polk City Republican. “I’m just trying to find a fix.”
Combee’s bill, House Bill 89, would give immunity to people who use the threat of a gun to halt an attack on themselves or their property.
Last year, a similar bill Combee sponsored never made it out of committee, but he thinks the time has come to fix the law. It was the first bill heard in committee for the 2014 legislative session and passed the House Criminal Justice Subcommittee on Thursday by a 12-1 vote.
In the House, it’s co-sponsored by Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, and 32 other representatives, including Rep. Dennis Baxley, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
Combee said his Senate co-sponsor is state Sen. Greg Evers, R-Baker, who chairs the Senate Criminal Justice Committee.
“There’s a better understanding that there are folks serving lengthy prison sentences because of 10-20-Life,” Combee said.
In 1998, lawmakers were responding to reports that violent criminals were plea-bargaining their way out of stiff prison sentences. But Combee said the law is being used in cases where those factors don’t apply.
“I don’t think you’ll find anyone who will attempt to argue that it was intended to cover anything and everything,” he said.
Another example of the law’s poor application involved Orville Lee Wollard, a Davenport man sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2008 for firing a gun during a confrontation in his home with his troubled daughter’s abusive boyfriend.
Wollard’s case is championed by Families Against Mandatory Minimums, whose website tells the story, including the statement made by Judge Donald Jacobsen at sentencing:
This [sentence] is obviously excessive…if it weren’t for the mandatory minimum…I would use my discretion and impose some separate sentence, having taken into consideration the circumstances of the event, but I think I am duty-bound to apply the law as it has been enacted by the Legislature.
Wollard’s family lost their home because of his incarceration and had to move out of state. Wollard’s wife, Combee said, will be visiting her husband this weekend for the first time in five years.
Those are the unjust ramifications Combee is trying to prevent.
If the Legislature does change the law, it won’t help those convicted under its previous form, he said. But he said a changed law “gives them something to talk to the governor about.”
And supporters, he said, would at least know others would not be facing stiff prison sentences for displaying or using a gun in self-defense – which is basically why people have guns in the first place.
Combee recounted the story of a lifelong friend whose daughter is serving a 13-year prison sentence for a conviction similar to Alexander’s.
The friend approached him, Combee said, knowing there was little that could be done for his daughter, but hoping to save others from the same fate.
“It’s enough to make a grown man cry,” Combee said.
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