10-20-Life, a law that confers a minimum sentence on people facing gun charges, sent Marissa Alexander to prison for 20 years, but now public opinion is shifting against the law and others like it.
Michael Giles, currently serving a 25-year sentence at Liberty Correctional Institution in Bristol, Florida. Photos by Mark Wallheiser
On the night of February 6, 2010, Airman Michael Giles, recently back from six years of overseas tours in Iraq and Kuwait, went with a group of friends to Tallahassee, Florida dive bar, Club Episodes. Out in the front lot, a shouting match erupted—something about a fraternity dispute. It wasn’t long before punches were thrown and the argument became a brawl involving 30 or 40 people, mostly African-American college students from nearby Florida A&M Univeristy. Michael hadn’t started the fight, but he was scared of it, paranoid someone would lash out at him. The violence seemed indiscriminate, so he retreated to the car he arrived in, retrieved the Beretta M9 pistol from the glove box. He wanted to leave, but he didn't feel safe leaving his friends, who he had been separated from in the course of the evening. He went back into the parking lot, hoping to make it out safely.
About at hour later, around 2 AM, as Michael was standing near some bushes on the opposite side of the parking lot from the fight, a Florida A&M student named Courtney Thrower ran up and struck Michael on the back of the head. Thrower would later testify in court that the attack was made without provocation, a meaningless, violent act. And that’s how Michael interpreted it: Trained as a soldier to identify and respond to danger, he swung around and shot Thrower, a man he had never met prior to that night, in the thigh.
Club Atmosphere (formerly Club Episodes), the tiny nightclub on 2122 West Pensacola Street in Tallahassee, Florida where Michael Giles shot Courtney Thrower.
After the shooting, he fled to a nearby liquor store. Soon after, Tallahassee law enforcement arrived, found him, cuffed him, and transported him to the Leon County Jail, about two miles away. A brief trial resulted in Giles being found guilty of aggrevated battery. His sentence for committing an act of self-defense: 25 years in Bristol, Florida's Liberty Correctional Facility thanks to an infamous sentencing law know as 10-20-Life.
10-20-Life is one of the most severe laws of its kind in the country. It confers a minimum sentence of ten years upon any person convicted of a felony while simply brandishing—not shooting—a firearm, even if the weapon is legally obtained. The firing of that gun, even if the bullet doesn’t actually hit a human being, bumps the sentence up to 20. If the defendant is a good enough shot to hit a person, he or she necessarily faces 25 to life, even if the victim doesn’t die.
Such a law would be sensible—shouldn’t gun use be strictly regulated?—if it weren’t for the fact that 10-20-Life, in spirit and in practice, contradicts another, more famous, Florida state law: statute 776.013, more commonly known as Stand Your Ground. While Stand Your Ground legally gives people who are attacked the right to defend themselves with guns and lethal force, 10-20-Life guarantees many of them will be punished for doing so. So while someone such as George Zimmerman can be acquitted of a shooting in large part by relying on the standards of self-defense outlined by Stand Your Ground, others, like Marissa Alexander—a 33-year-old mother who was sent to prison after firing a warning shot to scare off her abusive husband—get no such lenience. Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison thanks to 10-20-Life.
The Tampa Bay Times reported in February of 2012 that Florida spends $2.4 billion a year to run their prison system, which is currently the third largest in the nation. The prison population is expected to rise from 100,000 in 2011 to 103,000 in 2014. 10-20-Life only adds to that statistic. In 2006, 4,825 people were convicted under the law. 2,743 of them will be serving at least 10 years in the system. According to the advocacy group, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, several of these people were convicted for firing warning shots like Marissa Alexander, or shot in self-defense, as Michael Giles says he did.
The idea for 10-20-Life germinated in the late 90s, when violent crime rates remained stubbornly high in Florida. In 1997, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported nearly 150,801 violent crimes in the state. Then-gubernatorial candidate Jeb Bush proposed the law as a panacea for what ailed the state, a testament to his reputation of being tough on crime. Mandatory sentences were a quick and easy fix to put the breaks on a disturbing trend.
After sweeping into office, Governor Bush made 10-20-Life a priority, and when the bill became law in 1999, he said it “sent a clear signal to criminals in our state: if they use a gun, they will pay a steep price.” His administration took full credit for more than a thousand dangerous criminals charged under the new law. “Crime is dramatically down,” he told the Florida legislature during his State of the State address. “Gun murders alone dropped an astounding 22 percent last year. In fact, last year the state saw its greatest decrease in crime in almost 30 years.”
In a 2013 interview with the Boston Globe, Victor Crist, the Florida state senator who authored the bill, said 10-20-Life was “intended for direct, blatant acts of crime, like someone robbing a liquor store. Circumstances where Grandpa goes out on New Year’s Eve and fires a gun in the air… that wasn’t the intent.”
The facts tell a much different story, one where 10-20-Life’s measurable effect on Florida gun violence has been negligible and "Grandpa" is arrested for firing his gun more than Victor Crist intended. The Florida Department of Law Enforcement reported the percentage of murders in Florida committed with a firearm had actually increased from 61 percent in 1998 (the year 10-20-Life was proposed) to 71.5 percent in 2012. The percentage of robberies committed with a firearm also increased from 38.6 percent in 1998 to 41.5 in 2012. Guns are being used more often to commit violent crimes in Florida, which is hardly a success story.
Angela B. Corey. Screenshot via
State Attorney Angela B. Corey is one of the more vocal defenders of mandatory minimum laws like 10-20-Life. Indicted in July of 2013 on charges of falsifying the arrest warrant for George Zimmerman, Corey is a lighting rod for criticism related to her handling of the prosecution of both George Zimmerman and Marissa Alexander. She has the ability to tear an argument to shreds with a smile on her face, affecting the affable demeanor of an archetypal southern gentlewoman.
Critics insist that Corey denied Marissa Alexander the ability to claim Stand Your Ground during her trial, but she is adamant that this is a false reading of the facts. “She wasn’t denied a Stand Your Ground hearing—she was denied the benefit of the defense of justifiable use of deadly force at the Stand Your Ground hearing. She had a full-blown Stand Your Ground hearing where she testified, and the victims testified.”
Corey’s office sent me an odd document titled, “The Truth About Marissa Alexander.” The document suggests that Alexander's husband, Rico Gray, was never arrested for hitting her, there was no sign of domestic violence the night of the shooting, and Alexander fired at head level, narrowly missing Gray and his two sons. Asked to elaborate on this, Corey said that Alexander had, “already blatantly violated a judge’s order to stay away from Rico Gray, and committed a new crime against him before the case got to trial. So yes, we do believe she’s a danger to society, but that didn’t factor into the amount of time she got in prison. That is set by law.”
Corey even went as far as claiming Alexander could have been tried for attempted murder. “The decision to use a gun is, nine times out of ten, a very conscious decision. [Marissa Alexander] puts a round in the chamber, immediately says ‘I got somethin’ for your ass’ and then goes to get a gun? None of that indicates fear. It indicates she was angry, and she was going to show him how she felt about the argument they had just had.”
Gregory Newburn, a representative of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) denies these assertions. “The miscarriage of justice is not necessarily that [Marissa] Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault,” Newburn told me when we spoke over the phone. For him, the obscenity is a justice system that allows for a woman who believes she is innocent to receive a worse sentence for waiving a plea bargain. Marissa “got 20 years after Angela Corey herself offered her three. She got 17 years for exercising her fundamental right to a trial. I think everyone who read the facts of this case would concede that it’s a very close case of self-defense. I don’t think it’s clear-cut on either side.”
What is very clear-cut is the affect these mandatory minimum sentencing laws have on the families left behind. The loved ones of Marissa Alexander and Michael Giles have to wait decades to have them back in their lives. Still, Corey doesn't sympathize. “I’m not sure why [Marissa's] family keeps complaining. They’ve just fired up a number of people who are still reacting to several facts that are blatantly false."
Michael Sr. and Phyllis Giles explain the struggle to get their son out of prison.
Michael Giles's family is fighting equally as hard as Alexander's family, and they also were denied Stand Your Ground, but for entirely different reasons.
Stand Your Ground exists primarily to help people who use their firearms in self-defense, but Michael Giles's lawyer, Don Pumphrey refused to request a Stand Your Ground hearing prior to going to trial. “We set up a Stand Your Ground hearing, then he told me he canceled it,” Michael explained to me when I visited him at Liberty Correctional. He claimed Pumphrey told him that by not doing a Stand Your Ground hearing, they’d “throw them off guard” by going straight to trial.
“He talked appeal from the beginning,” Michael's mother, Phyllis said. “Nothing but appeal, appeal. And we said no, we don’t want to appeal. We want you to win this case.” They told Don they had a winnable case, but he went on making plans for a possible appeal. After Michael was convicted, the family immediately moved forward with that appeal. They failed, and the total cost of their unsuccessful defense was over $125,000.
As hazy as Marissa Alexander’s case might have been, Giles’s case is a much clearer instance of self-defense: there was no question that a brawl took place at Club Episodes. He didn’t engage in the fight until after he was attacked. Pumphrey refused numerous requests for comment, so the question of why he didn't use the most valuable tool in his arsenal to defend Michael Giles remains open. Regardless of the particulars of this one case, it's clear that 10-20-Life and Stand Your Ground are not working well together and the citizens of Florida are starting to question the laws' usefulness.
Marissa Alexander will receive a new trial thanks to a judge finding that her trial's jury instructions were "erroneous," but not because she was denied Stand Your Ground. Also, there are members of the Florida House of Representatives who are doing their best to revise 10-20-Life so that it addresses the legal inconsistencies inherent in the law.
A new House Bill 1047 called the “Defense of Life, Home, and Property” Act, sponsored by Representatives Neil Combee and Katie A. Edwards, would have revised the 10-20-Life law by extending further protection to those deemed to be defending their homes. The Florida House of Representatives website says that the bill “provides exemption from minimum sentence requirements related to use of weapon or firearm for persons acting in self-defense or defense of others.” Unfortunately, HB-1047 failed to get out of committee and will wither on the vine without more political support.
Even with this initial attempt to fix 10-20-Life, Michael will continue to live out his days in a cell. It’s an open question whether he is representative of the sort of danger to society that concerns hawkish Florida prosecutors, or if he’s a victim of overzealous and inflexible minimum sentencing.
But no matter how you slice it, the stats do not indicate that 10-20-Life makes an appreciable difference in the level of gun violence in Florida. Politicians across the United States derive a lot of electoral value and public support from advocating both self-defense laws like Stand Your Ground and harsh sentencing laws such as 10-20-Life, but the incontrovertible result seems to be that they’re not protecting anyone from harm.
During Michael’s trial, the judge stated several times that the punishment he was forced to dispense according to 10-20-Law regulations did not fit the crime. “Absent the mandatory provision,” he said at the sentencing, “I probably would not impose this sentence. I don’t have that choice today.” It's time that Florida gives him that choice.
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