TALLAHASSEE - A Florida state legislator has filed a bill to exempt anyone who fires a warning shot in self-defense from the state's minimum-mandatory-sentencing laws.
Rep. Neil Combee, R-Polk City, filed the bill Thursday in response to the conviction of a woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison after firing a gun near her estranged husband during an argument. His action came the same day an appeals court granted the woman, Marissa Alexander, a new trial.
Under Combee's proposed legislation, those in situations such as Alexander's would be exempt from the state's "10-20-Life" law, which requires anyone who shows a gun while committing certain felonies to be sentenced to 10 years in prison. If someone is shot and wounded during the commission of those crimes, the sentence increases to 25 years to life.
The law, implemented in 1999, has been credited with helping to lower Florida's violent-crime rate.
Combee said that Alexander's and other cases in Florida convinced him of the need to clarify the state's mandatory minimum-sentence law for gun-related offenses.
"I can't imagine and don't believe anyone intended that "10-20-Life" should apply to someone who felt they were threatened," Combee said. "What crime did she commit? She wasn't robbing a store."
Combee filed an identical bill during this year's legislative session but it went nowhere. He said the attention surrounding Alexander's case convinced him the measure has a chance of moving forward during the session that begins in March.
Alexander had never been arrested before she fired a bullet at a wall one day in 2010 to scare off her husband when she felt he was threatening her. Nobody was hurt, but the judge in the case said he was bound by state law to sentence her to 20 years in prison after she was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Alexander has maintained that the shot fired was a warning shot.
The 1st District Court of Appeal ruled Thursday that Alexander deserves a new trial because the trial judge handling her case did not properly instruct the jury regarding what is needed to prove self-defense. The ruling said the instructions constituted a "fundamental error" and required Alexander to prove self-defense "beyond a reasonable doubt."
But the court also made clear in its ruling that the judge was right to block Alexander from using the state's "stand your ground" law as a way to defend her actions. The law, which attracted international attention during George Zimmerman's recent murder trial, generally removes a duty to retreat in the face of possible danger and allows people to use deadly force if they believe their lives are in danger.
The judge threw out Alexander's "stand your ground" claim, noting she could have run out of the house to escape her husband but instead got the gun and went back inside. Alexander rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence and chose to go to trial. Alexander was also charged with domestic battery four months after the shooting in another assault on Gray. She pleaded no contest and was sentenced to time served.
State Attorney Angela Corey, who earlier this year oversaw the unsuccessful prosecution of Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, has stood by the handling of Alexander's case. Corey said she believes that Alexander aimed the gun at the man and his two sons, and that the bullet she fired could have ricocheted and hit any of them.