By now, you probably know the story of Marissa Alexander, a charming young woman who tried to defend herself and her children from a criminally abusive ex in Florida. Another soul outrageously and scandalously prosecuted by the, by all appearances, morally and ethically bereft Angela Corey, the state prosecutor in Florida’s 4th Judicial Circuit. Marissa was, finally, released from jail today pursuant to a forced plea agreement. Via Reuters:
A Florida woman who says she fired a warning shot at her abusive husband was released from a Jacksonville jail on Tuesday under a plea deal that capped her sentence to the three years she had already served.
Marissa Alexander, 34, was initially sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2012 but her conviction was later overturned. She faced another trial on charges that could have put her behind bars for 60 years before she agreed to a plea deal in November.
Her case helped to inspire a new state law permitting warning shots in some circumstances.
Leaving the courthouse, Alexander cried as she thanked her supporters, sharing plans to continue her education in order to work as a paralegal.
Ms. Alexander is indeed out of incarceration and home tonight, though she will still, pursuant to the plea she entered, have to serve two years on home confinement, starting from this date going forward. She appeared on Anderson Cooper’s “AC 360″ tonight on CNN and looked simply radiant. I don’t normally get into red carpet like descriptions of people in legal cases I comment on, but in this case it really seems appropriate. She is quite a woman, and it is impossible not to be charmed by her, and wish her the very best.
But what I really come to write about is the commentary of Jeffrey Toobin, who was on after Marissa’s appearance to discuss the legal considerations with Cooper. Toobin was strident, unflinching, and spot on in what he said. So much so I nearly stood up and cheered. Instead, I made a transcript:
AC: Why would Angela Corey suddenly say [to Marissa Alexander] okay, if we are going to go to trial you face 60 years, we are going to go for 60 years in jail instead of the 20 years sentence?
JT: Because Angela Corey incompetent, because she is vicious and because she is a disgrace to prosecutors around the country”
JT: I mean this is one of the most appalling examples of prosecutorial abuse I have ever seen. The harassment, the endless pursuit of this woman [Alexander] is just a blot on Florida, and our whole country.
AC: What makes it particularly, and why it captures so many people’s focus is during the George Zimmerman trial where obviously “stand your ground” was an issue, was raised, it seems it is a completely different interpretation of stand your ground.
JT: Well, that’s right. And I don’t know motive. I can’t tell you why Angela Corey pursued her so obsessively, and I…thinks it’s important to…all I know is what she did. All I know is what the facts are. The facts are that this woman had a very legitimate defense, this guy [Alexander’s ex] was a monster. He had a history of abuse of women, and that she [Alexander] would be pursued this way is just sickening.
AC: It is interesting, because the statute was amended subsequently basically to allow for warning shots and you wouldn’t necessarily be prosecuted for that, but it was not retroactive.
JT: Fortunately, this case has prompted a lot of outrage in Florida and around the country and that change in the law is one effect of this that was too late for her, too late to help her.
AC: It has to be such a gut wrenching decision, to decide to take a plea, to serve another 65 days in jail and then you get out, you have a record then, and you are under house arrest for another two years…or, maintain you innocence and risk another 60 years.
JT: It is a heartbreaking dilemma, but one thing tipped this case. You know, Angela Corey was not even negotiating, as far as I can tell, in good faith, but her lawyers, including Faith Gay of Quinn Emanuel, they were working pro bono on this case, they got a ruling from the trial judge that they could introduce evidence of all the abuse that Gray had imposed on other women…so that’s the trial setting that was going to happen.
Angela Corey is incompetent, vicious and a disgrace. Thank you Mr. Toobin, I could not possibly have said it better. As perfect as the description is, it may still be an understatement.
But, how did this come to be? How did Marissa Alexander face 20 years, get convicted, win an appeal, and come out of the appellate win only to face 60 years if she lost the retrial? Well, that is a subject that goes deeper than Jeff Toobin could really get into in a basic 3-4 minute cable TV hit.
Normally, a defendant such as Marissa Alexander might expect to be protected from such an escalation of sentence by the state’s attorney through the edicts of a case known as Blackledge v. Perry.
Blackledge v. Perry is a famous case known in criminal defense circles as the “upping the ante case”. Blackledge was convicted of a misdemeanor and appealed, which in North Carolina at the time meant he would get a new trial in a higher court. The state retaliated by filing the charge as a felony in the higher court, thus “upping the ante”. The Supreme Court in Blackledge held that to be impermissibly vindictive.
A prosecutor clearly has a considerable stake in discouraging convicted misdemeanants from appealing and thus obtaining a [new trial] in the Superior Court, since such an appeal will clearly require increased expenditures of prosecutorial resources. . . . And, if the prosecutor has the means readily at hand to discourage such appeals — by “upping the ante” through a felony indictment whenever a convicted misdemeanant pursues his statutory appellate remedy — the State can insure that only the most hardy defendants will brave the hazards of a [new] trial.
. . . A person convicted of an offense is entitled to pursue his statutory right to a trial . . ., without apprehension that the State will retaliate by substituting a more serious charge for the original one, thus subjecting him to a significantly increased potential period of incarceration.
So, Angela Corey impermissibly “upped the ante”, in violation of Blackledge, on Marissa Alexander when she sought 60 years imprisonment on Alexander upon retrial even though the sentence from the first trial was “only” 20 years, right? Unfortunately no.
You see, Corey did not up the number or nature of charges when charging the retrial, she alleged the same three counts, it is just that the law in Florida had changed, and Corey cravenly took advantage of it to unconscionably bludgeon Marissa Alexander.
Alexander, 33, was previously convicted in 2012 of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and was sentenced to 20 years in prison by Circuit Judge James Daniel under the state’s 10-20-life law. Daniel actually imposed three separate 20-year sentences on Alexander but ordered that they be served concurrently, which meant Alexander would get out in 20 years.
The conviction was thrown out after the 1st District Court of Appeal in Tallahassee ruled that Daniel made a mistake in shifting the burden to Alexander to prove she was acting in self-defense. During jury instructions, Daniel said she must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was battered by her husband.
But Assistant State Attorney Richard Mantei, the lead prosecutor in the case, told the Times-Union his office was simply following the sentencing laws of the state of Florida.
The same appeals court that ordered Alexander’s retrial separately ruled last year that when a defendant is convicted of multiple counts under 10-20-life that arose from the same crime, judges must make the sentences consecutive and are not allowed to impose them concurrently.
The law has not changed since Alexander was sentenced in 2012, but courts throughout the state have been struggling to interpret what the Legislature meant when it passed sentencing laws regarding 10-20-life.
The Alexander case inspired the so-called “warning-shot” bill that will be part of the Florida legislative session that begins Tuesday. The proposal, which is expected to pass, would create an exception to the 10-20-life law and prohibit those who fire a warning shot from getting 20 years in prison.
So, it is, unfortunately, not really within the ambit of Blackledge. Which leaves us back where we started. Angela Corey. Corey was ridiculously aggressive in not affording Alexander, a victim herself, the benefit of the doubt on self defense, including the much misunderstood, and misdescribed, “stand your ground” provision.
With no protection from Blackledge and its progeny, and the curious ability of Marissa Alexander to be subject to the new “consecutive” provision in Florida’s 10-20-life gun laws, but not the new provisions on warning shots in stand your ground cases, this was the position Marissa Alexander found herself. Take a scandalous plea, the only one being offered by the contemptible Circuit Attorney Corey, or risk her children never seeing her out of custody in her natural lifetime. After seeing what Corey was willing to do, how could Alexander not take the deal?
But, make no mistake, the only reason that this situation got to where it did is out of the sheer evil avarice of a woman not fit to represent the people of Florida, nor the justice system in America. Angela Corey is a walking talking picture of injustice. Thanks again to Jeff Toobin for saying that so clearly. And, best wishes and godspeed to Marissa Alexander.
Well, okay, the press conference by Angela Corey is over. Let us be clear, it was the performance of a politician and, not necessarily that of a grounded and by the book prosecutor. Seriously.
First off, Ms. Corey talked in repeated and continued platitudes and never, at any point, identified what the exact charge she was prosecuting Zimmerman under, nor her basis for doing so.
This is important to me, and the discussion herein at this blog, because 1) we are intelligent and actually care about such specifics, but 2) It is really important in a publicly and hotly contested case such as the Zimmerman shooting homicide of Trayvon Martin.
I stand by everything said in my preliminary post today as to why the path, via information filed and prelim process is not only appropriate, but absolutely smart. That still stands.
The only issue, at this point, is the actual charging of the criminal defendant, in this case George Zimmerman. Here is the SOLE charge filed by Angela Corey against George Zimmerman:
COUNT 1: IN THE COUNTY OF SEMINOLE, STATE OF FLORIDA, On February 26, 2012, GEORGE ZIMMERMAN, did unlawfully and by an act imminently dangerous to another, and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual, kill TRAYVON MARTIN, a human being under the age of eighteen, by shooting the said victim, and during the commission of the aforementioned Second Degree Murder, the said GEORGE ZIMMERMAN did carry, display, use, threaten to use or attempt to use or attempt to use a firearm and did actually possess and discharge a firearm and as a result of the discharge, death or great bodily harm was inflicted upon any person, contrary to the provisions of Sections 782.04(2), 775.08(1) and 775.087(2), Florida Statutes.
That would be 2nd degree murder, as charged. Under what actual section of the pertinent Florida statute are we talking? Well, 782.04(2), 775.08(1) and 775.087(2). does that really tell you where and how the state is proceeding? No. Not to my eye, it does not. Take a look, if you can see the specific, definable, path to charge, then you are a better man and lawyer than I. If you can see, maybe, potential, possible, applicability then join the club. But, that is, of course, not the standard.
Here, however, is the manslaughter provision I proffered in the earlier post. I now see legal gadabout Mark Geragos on CNN saying the 2nd degree statute charged may be actually easier to prove up than a manslaughter charge. He is is fucking crazy loopy off his rocker if he really believes that bleating bullshit.
Seriously, I cannot speak as an active criminal prosecutor, but as a defense attorney, bring this on. If my client has to be charged, I would rather he be over charged, especially nebulously and with all the justification defenses available under Florida law, as either described and/or linked, in the earlier post.
So, to sum up, I would say it is a bit batty to charge the HIGHEST POSSIBLE CHARGE IMAGINABLE, and ONLY THE HIGHEST CHARGE IMAGINABLE, with no lesser included backups. But, hey, what me worry Angela Corey?
Yes, I am perplexed at this. Completely. Let the college of internet knowledge school us on why this is wrong.
As you may have heard by now, the Washington Post has broken the news that Florida officials, to wit Special Prosecutor Angela Corey, will charge George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin killing. The charging is expected late this afternoon, but could be as late as tomorrow. Here is the key information from the Washington Post report:
Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey plans to announce as early as Wednesday afternoon that she is charging neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the shooting of Trayvon Martin, according to a law enforcement official close to the investigation.
It was not immediately clear what charge Zimmerman will face.
Both the AP and CBS News have confirmed that Zimmerman will be charged and the AP is reporting the news conference announcing the charge will be at 6:00 pm EST today. Further, the Miami Herald is reporting there will be one single charge filed in the matter, although they do not report what the charge is.
Now, here is why this is occurring, and it s exactly what I predicted from the moment Special Prosecutor Corey’s office let it be known that she, on behalf of the state, would not be availing herself of the grand jury process, an announcement made Monday.
The bottom line is this: a direct information/complaint is a cleaner, and safer, way for Corey to proceed.
The facts are muddled, and the evidence set for the case was compromised, by incompetent investigation by police from the outset. There is, at this point, no question (and, really, there may never have been) any doubt but that Zimmerman had at least at a nominal minimum, an allegeable self defense claim. That does not mean it is valid, but it does mean that it is legally cognizable.
With the screwed up and compromised evidence status, combined with all the public attention and attendant lobbying of law and factual interpretation, it would be brutal for a prosecutor to take the matter to a grand jury. The first thing a good defense lawyer would do upon knowledge of a pending grand jury presentation is salt the prosecutor with every fact and argument humanly imaginable in his client’s behalf – in writing – and demand that it be presented to the grand jury along with the state’s case. You do that on a high profile case like this with a sloppily worded affirmative defense like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, and there is every reason to believe a grand jury would decline.
But, the odds are far different if a prosecutor, in this case Corey, takes the path of filing an direct information and foregoing the grand jury. A direct information, with a duly issued arrest warrant from the court of competent jurisdiction, gives the case the instant imprimatur of legitimacy, and guarantees that it will be determined by an experienced magistrate, and not lay citizens on a grand jury. This is exactly why I argued to Jeff Toobin Monday night that it was a superior path.
Now, a little further depth on what is at play, and for that I will turn to an excellent, and correct, analysis by Reuters on this subject:
To mix metaphors, Stand Your Ground is no Slam Dunk.
The controversial 2005 Florida law grants immunity to people who use deadly force in self defense. In the days since George Zimmerman shot and killed 17-year old Trayvon Martin, critics and supporters both seem to have assumed that if Zimmerman is charged, he could easily seek and win immunity from prosecution under Stand Your Ground.
But don’t be so sure. Interviews with nearly a dozen veteran defense lawyers who have experience litigating Stand Your Ground cases suggest winning immunity could be quite difficult.
“Judges do not readily grant these (immunity) motions because they know they can pass it on to the jury,” said Carey Haughwout, the public defender for Palm Beach County.
So far, Zimmerman has not charged with any wrongdoing. A special prosecutor, Angela Corey, is still investigating the incendiary case, which carries heavy racial overtones and has stirred a national outcry.
But if charges are filed and Zimmerman does choose to seek immunity, he will face challenges at almost every stage, lawyers said.
The first hurdle will be a special evidentiary hearing in front of a judge, where Zimmerman will have the opportunity to argue that he deserves immunity. But to convince the judge, Zimmerman will have to present a “preponderance of evidence” that he acted in self defense, which under the law means he has to show he had “reasonable belief” that such force was necessary. That is a high bar, and difficult to prove, criminal defense attorneys said.
In cases where the facts are in dispute — and even if they don’t seem to be — the judge is likely to deny the Stand Your Ground immunity motion, said Ralph Behr, a Florida criminal defense attorney who has filed eight motions for immunity, all of which have been denied. More typically, a judge will choose to have the case go to trial, where the defendant must take his or her chance with a jury, just like other criminal defendants, he said.
“Most judges, I think, are comfortable letting the adverserial system play out before a jury rather than make decisions themselves,” said Behr.
Bingo! I literally could not have said it better myself. Hats off to Reuters for some fine analysis. See, filing the charge via information guarantees it gets to a court. The first step is almost certainly (and Florida criminal code is a bit, um, confusing, but seems consistent with the norm) that Zimmerman would be given an initial appearance within 48 hours of his actual physical arrest, and would be set for a preliminary hearing within ten days of the date of his initial appearance (unless he waives said time limit and requests an extension). The magistrate is going to want no part of being the final arbiter, and will want to pass this on to a jury trial level court. And, as the Reuters analysis explains, things actually favor the case getting to the jury. This is almost surely why the case is proceeding as it is. And, no, it is not, as Think Progress blithely stated, because Angela Corey definitively decided “Stand Your Ground” is inapplicable; it is about making a further court decide that issue as Reuters explained.
One last thing, in addition to the above discussion, it simply is not, and never has been, that the infamous Florida “Stand Your Ground” law is the controlling boogeyman that nearly every commentator has made it out to be. David Kopel, at Volokh Conspiracy, says:
Media coverage of Florida’s self-defense laws in recent weeks has often been very inaccurate. While some persons, particularly from the gun prohibition lobbies, have claimed that the Martin/Zimmerman case shows the danger of Florida’s “Stand your ground” law, that law is legally irrelevant to case. So let’s take a look at what the Florida laws actually say.
I do not want to expend the space to cover all that David did again here, but do go read his lengthy piece on the full nature of Florida homicide and self defense law, it is very good. While I do not agree with every thing Kopel says it is, on the whole, spot on as to how Zimmerman/Martin is really a normal self defense/justification case. And so it is.
Lastly, a prediction. As related above, it appears there will be a single count charged in Corey’s information against Zimmerman. That is certainly not unusual nor distressing in the least if you are experienced in such matters. Actually, it is predictable. I predict that charge will be a single count of manslaughter under Florida Revised Statute 782.07 and aggravated under subsection (3) because Trayvon Martin was under the age of 18 years old.
So, that is why we are where we are, and my predictions for where this case is going, and why.