Quinn Emanuel Helps Florida Woman in Warning Shot Case Win Retrial
Paving the way for a new trial in a controversial case, a Florida appeals court on Thursday vacated the aggravated assault conviction of a woman sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a single shot into the ceiling of her home during a domestic dispute.
Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan and Florida lawyer Bruce Zimet represented the woman, Marissa Alexander, in her appeal of a conviction that garnered fresh attention following the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the Florida man charged with murder after shooting and killing unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin in a gated community in 2012. Both cases called into question the state's hotly debated "stand your ground" law, though neither Zimmerman nor Alexander were offered immunity under the law by Florida courts.
Alexander was arrested in August 2010 following what she and her lawyers described in court as a fight with her estranged husband over Alexander's fidelity and the paternity of her week-old baby. After her husband verbally and physically confronted her and broke down a bathroom door to continue the assault, she ran into the garage, according to court filings, and returned to the house holding a gun she was licensed to carry. When her husband threatened to kill her, she raised her gun into the air and fired, causing him to leave.
Alexander's conviction of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon rested largely on a set of jury instructions—which the appellate decision said represented a "fundamental error"—that put the burden on Alexander to prove that she fired the shot in self defense. A jury found Alexander guilty in May 2012 after deliberating for just 12 minutes.
Quinn Emanuel partner and national trial practice cochair Faith Gay, who led the firm's work on the case, welcomed Thursday's ruling and called the original trial outcome a "travesty."
The firm got involved a year ago at the behest of Zimet, a criminal defense attorney whom Gay has known and worked with for years. "Typically when he asks me to get involved, I don’t say no," Gay says. "This case was of profound interest to me."
In crafting the appeal, which was based entirely on briefs because Florida's First District Court of Appeal did not call for oral arguments, Gay said Alexander's legal team focused on the two improper jury instructions, which flipped the burden of proof and required Alexander to show that her estranged husband committed or was about to commit aggravated battery when she fired the weapon. As a result of Thursday's decision, the state's attorney will have to prove at the retrial that Alexander did not act in self defense.
"The defendant’s burden is only to raise a reasonable doubt concerning self-defense," the appellate court ruled. "The defendant does not have the burden to prove the victim guilty of the aggression defended against beyond a reasonable doubt. The trial court committed fundamental error in requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt that appellant’s husband committed aggravated battery immediately before she fired the warning shot, or would have done so but for the shot."
Jennifer Meale, a spokeswoman for Florida attorney general Pamela Bondi, declined to comment beyond saying Bondi's office is reviewing the ruling.
Gay said her team is still weighing whether to push for a new hearing on whether Alexander can also assert the "stand your ground" defense. In its opinion, the appellate court ruled that the state correctly refused to grant Alexander immunity under the controversial law.
Though Thursday's ruling does not mean that Alexander—who has been imprisoned for 20 months—will be automatically freed pending the retrial, Gay said she and her colleagues plan to prepare on a new bail application to win their client's release. Alexander's lawyers will also work over the next few weeks to secure a new trial date, and Quinn Emanuel will serve on the trial team alongside Zimet as the case moves forward.
Gay estimates that Quinn lawyers, including associates Alexander Rossmiller, now a clerk in the Eastern District of New York, and Molly Karlin, spent between 600 and 700 hours on the case.
"It’s a big day for us to be able to start over again," Gay said. "It’s also a major decision for the state of Florida to make sure self-defense instructions (are correct)."