JACKSONVILLE, Fla., May 24, 2012
Margie Menzel, The News Service of Florida
As policymakers study the controversy surrounding the "stand your ground" self defense law, the issue is drawing interest from a broad swath of the general public.
A town hall meeting on the law drew 200 people to Florida State College in Jacksonville Tuesday night.
It was an informational meeting, said state Rep. Mia Jones, D-Jacksonville, one of those who sponsored the gathering. But the law's possible role in Trayvon Martin's shooting death in Sanford and in the recent case of Marissa Alexander, a Jacksonville woman sentenced to 20 years for firing a warning shot at her husband in a dispute, prompted strong reactions from the mostly African-American audience.
Both Martin and Alexander are black.
Another common thread between the two cases is Jacksonville State Attorney Angela Corey, who is also the special prosecutor in the Martin case. Last month she charged George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, with second-degree murder in Martin's death.
Jones said Corey had been invited to participate in the forum, but was unable to attend. Jackelyn Barnard, the spokeswoman for Corey’s office, said the state attorney was in a high-level staff meeting, but some employees of her office were in the audience.
Members of the public had a number of questions about the case involving Alexander, who claimed self-defense and sought to use the "stand your ground" law, giving up a plea bargain with Corey's office to do so. She then lost her case. She was sentenced under the state 10-20-Life law that provides judges with mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. Alexander is now in the state prison for women at Lowell, said her attorney, Kevin Cobbin, and will appeal.
The town hall meeting, sponsored by Jones and the D.W. Perkins Bar Foundation – the local black bar association – included experts in criminal justice: Richard Brown, a defense attorney, Jason Snyder of the Duval County Public Defender's Office, Ken Jefferson, retired after 24 years with the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office and a campaign for sheriff last year, Professor Bob Dekle of the University of Florida College of Law, who has 30 years experience as a prosecutor, and Chuck Hobbs, a criminal defense attorney and former legal advisor to the Florida NAACP.
The panel also included state Sen. Audrey Gibson, D-Jacksonville, who said she'll likely propose legislation to amend the 2005 "stand-your-ground" law.
"I think I have a duty to, as a matter of fact," she said. "But I'm going to do my due diligence. I'm going to look at cases that have gone before a judge using the "stand-your-ground" law – and not only in Florida."
Gibson said the forum hadn't addressed the fact that the law is on the books in many states.
"Some states have pulled back because of what happened in Florida with Trayvon Martin. So those that dare still use it, I'm going to see what their numbers look like and what ours look like, and from that craft some language that I think should be considered," she said.
In the audience was Democratic Congresswoman Corrine Brown, who represents the district and is preparing a study and a hearing in Washington, D.C. on how "stand-your-ground" and mandatory minimum sentencing are applied.
"Because basically it's a problem when the prosecutor has all of the discretion, and the judge should have more discretion," she said. "And then when you look at the officer and prosecutor all working together, then you really got a problem."
Brown, who attended Alexander's sentencing two weeks ago, said she has arranged for Mike Dowd, an attorney from the Pace University Women's Justice Center, to collaborate with Cobbin on Alexander's appeal.
Meanwhile, the state and the Jacksonville chapters of the NAACP are planning a "Free Marissa" march and rally on May 29.
Jones agreed that the Jacksonville community is still upset about Alexander's sentencing.
"It did not have to be an enhanced penalty in order to make sure that she did not serve 20 years," she said. "We all take a chance when we don't take a plea, but in this instance, I do see it as a miscarriage of justice for her to sit there for 20 years, knowing that she comes from a domestic violence background.
"I hope she will be successful in her appeal, and we will continue to stand with the family on that."