In July of 2013, I blogged about the Marissa Alexander case here . Ms. Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to twenty years in prison after firing a “warning shot” at her estranged, and reportedly abusive, husband. Last week Ms. Alexander was released after entering a plea deal to three counts of aggravated assault and being sentenced to serve three years, along with probation and house arrest.
This case is a prime example of how prosecutors use plea bargaining. First, the prosecutor offered Ms. Alexander three years in prison if she plead guilty. Ms. Alexander rejected the offer and went to trial on what appeared to be a solid “stand your ground” defense. After Ms. Alexander lost the trial, she was sentenced to twenty years in prison (an example of the trial penalty). She appealed her conviction. She won the appeal on the grounds that the the trial judge had wrongly placed the burden of proof on her to prove she acted in self defense. When the case went back for a re-trial the prosecution announced that they would seek a sixty year sentence: twenty years consecutive on each of the three charges. Then, the prosecution offered the original three years again.
Ms. Alexander took the plea deal in November of last year, and just this past week was released from prison after serving the rest of her time.
This cases raises a number of difficult questions. First, how concerned was this prosecutor with the ethical duty to “do justice” in how this case was handled? Should a first time offender, in a case with a colorable claim of self-defense, who is a mother of three children (one who was just one week-old at the time the incident occurred) be sentenced to twenty years in prison for an incident with no injuries? If the case was worth three years at the time the original plea offer was made, and four years later when the plea deal was finally accepted, why wasn’t it worth that after the trial? How is it not unduly coercive for a prosecutor to threaten to triple the sentence when a defendant wins an appeal and is facing re-trial?
Unfortunately for Ms. Alexander she was faced with an impossible choice: take the three years and get out in a matter of weeks, or go to trial and risk spending the rest of her life in prison.
This case is ultimately an example of how prosecutors use extreme possible sentences to ratchet up the pressure on defendants to take deals even when they have strong cases.
The prosecutor in Florida is, unfortunately, an all too common example of one who doesn’t see any problem with putting defendants in these no-win situations where exercising a constitutional right to trial is too risky.
The good news is that Ms. Alexander is now home and able to put her life together. The bad news is she is doing it with a felony conviction that she might not have had if she had been arrested in another part of the United States with a prosecutor who had a different idea of justice.