George Zimmerman killed a 17-year-old boy he’d stalked for being ‘suspicious’ (a black teenager in a neighborhood where there’d been some problems… also known as “racial profiling”), provoked an altercation, shot the boy to death and then got off scott-free based on the parameters of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Yes, Zimmerman’s lawyer dropped that particular defense and went with plain old “self defense” instead (getting out of your car and following someone is, by definition, not “standing” your ground) but the very existence of the law pollutes the way people view
murder “unavoidable” shootings. Particularly when a black person is the victim. But if the shooter is black? Good luck finding equal treatment.
For example: Marissa Alexander, a black woman, fired a warning bullet into the wall of her home after her abusive husband, Rico Gray, on whom she’d already taken out a protective order, came toward her in a threatening manner and, despite having no record and citing that same Florida “Stand Your Ground” law, she was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
You really want to tell me there’s nothing racial going on here?
The difference in the two cases, beyond the racial make-up of the participants, is clearly that Alexander was found guilty and Zimmerman was not. Certainly we can now walk away and simply say, “well, difficult as that is to understand, it’s the law and we respect the jury’s verdicts,” and yet… aren’t we also supposed to keep a sharp eye out for obvious injustices and gross misapplications of that law? If we do not, aren’t we as culpable as those who stood idly by during the Civil Rights era and other times of social unrest and let heinous acts of injustice pass without intervention?
In fact, Alexander’s case has drawn the support of domestic violence and women’s rights activists who see the sentence as a punitive legal interpretation of a law that seems to have allowed Zimmerman to kill with justification. Of course, one could counter that the judge’s hands were tied by the mandatory sentencing parameters of the Florida law; in fact, that’s exactly what the judge did counter:
At the May 11  sentencing, Alexander’s relatives begged Circuit Judge James Daniel for leniency but he said the decision was “out of my hands.”
“The Legislature has not given me the discretion to do what the family and many others have asked me to do,” he said.
The state’s “10-20-life” law was implemented in 1999 and credited with helping to lower the violent crime rate. Anyone who shows a gun in the commission of certain felonies gets an automatic 10 years in prison. Fire the gun, and it’s an automatic 20 years. Shoot and wound someone, and it’s 25 years to life. [Source]
Which, of course, makes one wonder how on earth Zimmerman walked. But, then again, he’s not a black woman in Florida.
By why didn’t Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law work for Alexander as it worked (even indirectly) for Zimmerman? Turns out her case was just a little too messy for the judge. Here are the basic facts: Aug. 1, 2010. Alexander, an educated (she has her masters), law-abiding woman who worked for a payroll software company and was estranged from her husband, Rico Gray, had just given birth to a baby nine days earlier but was not living in the home due to marital problems. In fact, she’d taken out a restraining order on her husband who’d been violent with her. She went back to the house that afternoon to pick up her clothes and while there, got into an argument with Gray. Saying later that she feared for her life, she went to her car and got her gun (which was legally owned) and fired a shot into the wall. No one was killed, no one was injured, it was a warning shot designed to assert her unwillingness to get her ass kicked again.
She was arrested, Gray claims she was “the aggressor” (that sounds logical, considering he was the one with the restraining order against him); he claims she pointed the gun at him and looked away as she pulled the trigger; he also claims he’d “begged” her to put the weapon away (oh, I bet he begged her!). She claimed “Stand Your Ground”; the judge stated that she could have run away but instead went back into the house after retrieving the gun. Despite the fact that the law explicitly states that the victim of a crime does not have to attempt to run for safety and can immediately retaliate in self-defense, the judge threw out the “Stand Your Ground” defense, and after Alexander turned down a plea deal for three years, clearly convinced her case was solid, the jury deliberated for 12 minutes before they found her guilty.
12 minutes. Guilty. For shooting one bullet into a wall. They called it “aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.” State Attorney Angela Corey, who, ironically, just lost her case in the Zimmerman trial, claims Alexander’s sentence is justified. She believes Alexander aimed the gun at the Gray (and his two sons, who were apparently in the house), and the possibility was there that the one bullet she fired could have ricocheted and hit one of them.
But it didn’t. And even if she did point the gun at him and look away (his interpretation), how is that worthy of 20 years? He wasn’t hurt. She was the definition of a battered wife. This was a man who’d beaten her before; it’s not hard to imagine he would again. In fact, they got into another melee four months later and, again, Alexander was the one who charged with assault. She pleaded no contest and was sentenced to time served, but clearly there is an issue of violence between them… and remember, he’s the one under a restraining order. As her father said:
“She had a restraining order against him. Now Marissa is incarcerated and he’s not,” said her father, Raoul Jenkins. “I’m wrestling with that in my mind and trying to determine how the system worked that detail out. It’s really frustrating.” [Source]
It’s frustrating to perfect strangers; I can’t imagine how it feels to her family. Even Victor Crist, who was a Republican state legislator involved with writing the “10-20-life” bill in 1999, feels this sentence is a perversion of the law:
He said Alexander’s sentence – if she truly did fire a warning shot and wasn’t trying to kill her husband – is not what lawmakers wanted.
“We were trying to get at the thug who was robbing a liquor store who had a gun in his possession or pulled out the gun and threatened someone or shot someone during the commission of the crime,” said Crist, who served in the state House and Senate for 18 years before being elected Hillsborough County commissioner. [Source]
Alexander attempted to get a new trial but was denied, but she does have some powerful people on her side. Jacksonville, Florida’s Democratic Representative, Corinne Brown, has been an advocate for Alexander throughout:
“The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today,” Brown said afterward. “One is that if women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the `Stand Your Ground Law’ will not apply to them. … The second message is that if you are black, the system will treat you differently.” [Source]
George Newburn, the director of FAMM (Families Against Mandatory Minimums), has spoken out on Alexander’s behalf, as well, stating that the judge should have authority to hand down an appropriate sentence rather than blindly subscribing to the limitations of the law, particularly in the case of domestic abuse. As of now, FAMM’s latest report on Alexander cites the following, their frustration clear:
FAMM Florida Project Director Greg Newburn today condemned the 20-year mandatory minimum sentence given to Marissa Alexander. Alexander, a 31-year old mother of three, was convicted of aggravated assault after firing a warning shot during an attack by her abusive husband.
“Florida’s mandatory 10-20-life gun law forced the Court to impose an arbitrary, unjust and completely inappropriate sentence,” Newburn said. “Because not even the appeals court can fix her sentence, Ms. Alexander’s only recourse is to ask Governor Scott for clemency. We urge him to grant her relief immediately and send her home to three her kids.” He added, “As long as Florida keeps its inflexible gun sentencing laws, we will continue to see cases like Ms. Alexander’s.”
That report was from over a year ago. Marissa Alexander is still in prison. For 19 more years. For shooting a bullet into a wall. George Zimmerman killed a boy, benefited from the mere existence of “Stand Your Ground,” and today he walks free.
If you’d like to show support for Marissa Alexander, click Stand Your Ground Marissa Alexander and the Support For Marissa Alexander Facebook page for pertinent contact information and updates on her case.