Angela Corey has a job that certainly cannot be described as boring. As Florida State Attorney for the Fourth Judicial District, she gained notoriety for her prosecution of two high profile cases over the past three years.
Three years ago she was appointed by Gov. Rick Scott to serve as the lead prosecutor of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case.
We all know what happened.
Corey charged Zimmerman with murder, but was unable to prove it in court. Zimmerman’s defense did not include the use of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law, but trial judge Susan Nelson wove some of its provisions into her instructions to the jury.
In her own district, Corey prosecuted a Jacksonville woman named Marissa Alexander for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and violating Florida’s “10-20-Life” law. This statute calls for 20-year mandatory prison sentences for those firing a gun during the commission of a crime.
Did Alexander commit a crime? She had suffered from multiple instances of domestic violence at the hands of her estranged husband, Rico Gray, who admitted as much.
After a particularly frightening encounter with Gray on August 1, 2010, Alexander retrieved a pistol and fired one “warning” shot to send Gray a clear message. It worked, as Gray and his two children inside fled the home.
The direction of Alexander’s shot is key. Gray said in his deposition that Alexander did not fire at him directly, but initially told police at the scene that she indeed had fired at him.
No one was injured.
If she fired a shot toward the ceiling as claimed, Alexander clearly did not deserve prosecution. Corey believed Gray’s initial statement that Alexander tried to shoot him.
Corey offered Alexander a plea deal of three years in prison. Convinced she did nothing wrong or choosing to roll the dice, Alexander rejected the plea deal. She would stand her ground on Stand Your Ground.
Duval Circuit Judge James Daniel rejected the Stand Your Ground defense by saying Alexander could have run out of the house to avoid further confrontation with Gray. One cannot normally second guess a jury who saw the evidence and heard the trial testimony, but it is mind boggling to know they returned with a guilty verdict after only 12 minutes.
Following Alexander’s conviction, Daniel stated he had no choice but to impose a 20 year sentence under the guidelines of 10-20-Life. Corey commented following the verdict “(Alexander) discharged a gun to kill them, and she has to answer for that.”
Alexander appealed the verdict. On September 26, 2013 a three-judge panel of the First District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee unanimously agreed the trial judge erred in his jury instructions by, in effect, shifting the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defendant.
How did Corey respond? In a word: aggressively. Instead of seeking 20 years, Corey upped the ante by announcing the state would seek 20 years each for Gray and the two children in the house that day. Alexander now faced 60 years in prison.
The dramatic escalation reminded some legal watchers of her decision to charge Zimmerman with murder instead of something less difficult to prove. Perhaps she had a strategy. If Corey wanted to put Alexander away for life or put the fear of God in her, the latter must have worked.
Those supporting Alexander, especially advocates for victims of domestic violence, were apoplectic. What kind of message does this send, they asked, to victims of domestic violence trying to protect themselves? Marissa Alexander was a national symbol of a domestic violence victim as well as being wrongly denied the opportunity to invoke Stand Your Ground.
One overarching and inescapable facts of this case is that Marissa Alexander was a victim of domestic violence and was about to become one again. Whatever she did or did not do was done in that context.
Instead of going to trial again in December, Alexander accepted Corey’s proffer of a three-year sentence that included time served. On Jan. 27, Alexander was released from custody and placed under house arrest for two years.
Part of the plea deal included an admission from Alexander that she had not pointed the gun toward the ceiling but instead fired into the wall near Gray. While Alexander also pleaded guilty to the two other counts involving the children, she maintains neither was present when the gun was fired.
Alexander’s supporters maintain that even one day she spent in jail represents an injustice. It was self-defense.
The law says Gray and the children were victims. True, but while firing a gun toward a person is a crime, so too is domestic violence.
There are no winners in this case, but if we can better protect those who are battered and abused, we will see fewer cases like Marissa Alexander.
Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee.