A dollop of promisingly good news came out of Florida last week. An appellate court wiped away a jury decision that convicted Marissa Alexander—who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive husband—and ordered a new trial. For the moment, Alexander remains behind bars, pending a separate hearing to determine whether she can receive bail while she awaits her new trial.
As incredible as this story seemed when it occurred in 2010, it was eclipsed in the media headlines by an eerily similar story last year, also out of Florida. Who could forget all the public attention larded upon George Zimmerman, the self-appointed vigilante who felt justified to kill Trayvon Martin because of Florida’s odious Stand Your Ground law and was acquitted of murder charges?
Zimmerman’s trial and acquittal in that case sparked an ongoing national argument—debate is too gentle a description—over justice in in the Sunshine State, the wisdom of Stand Your Ground laws, and general racial and gender disparities in the criminal justice system.
Alexander, 33, argued before a Florida jury that the Stand Your Ground law should apply in her case and prevent her from serving time for firing a weapon in self-defense. She was unsuccessful.
Specifically, Alexander testified that within days of giving birth to their son, her then-estranged husband, Rico Gray Sr., attacked her in the bathroom of their home. Gray was under a court’s restraining order to stay away from Alexander. She fought him off and eventually escaped to a garage where she grabbed a gun. She said she fired a shot into the ceiling to scare him off, arguing that “it was the lesser of two evils” compared to shooting and killing him.
Alexander will get a new day in court, following a decision written by Judge Robert Benton to grant her a new trial. The appellate court ruled that instructions to the jury in the previous trial unfairly required Alexander to prove that she was acting in self-defense. But Benton’s ruling upheld the trial judge’s decision to disallow Alexander from using the Stand Your Ground law as a defense in her trial.
Compare and contrast the fine details of the two cases: Alexander had no prior criminal record, unlike Zimmerman, who had been arrested for battery of a police officer and a restraining order for domestic abuse. He was questioned and released after shooting Martin and was only arrested after an outcry on social media. Worse, he actually shot and killed an unarmed teenager. Nobody died as a result of Alexander’s actions. Yet Zimmerman, who felt empowered by Stand Your Ground, killed a defenseless teenager and walks around proud and free.
While a number of social activists rushed to defend Alexander, including leaders of the NAACP and some in Congress, Alexander’s case hasn’t drawn nearly the national outrage that it deserves. Could it be because Alexander is a black woman?
Rita Smith, the executive director of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence thinks so, telling Kirsten Powers of The Daily Beast that “Most battered women who kill in self-defense end up in prison. There is a well-documented bias against women [in these cases].”
Florida State Attorney Angela Corey, who supervised the prosecution of Alexander and oversaw the Zimmerman case, isn’t buying that argument in these Florida cases. She told The Washington Post the Alexander and Zimmerman trials had “zero parallels.” She argued that Alexander didn’t fear for her life when she aimed her gun at her husband and his two sons, but rather her shot missed her husband, and the ricocheted bullet struck the ceiling.
Moreover, she attacked Alexander’s supporters as know-nothings with text-messaging skills. “I think social media is going to be the destruction of this country,” Corey said in an interview. “How dare people just repeat something without checking [whether] it’s true.”
The jury apparently agreed with Corey, deliberating for 12 minutes and convicting the mother of three of aggravated assault. Under Florida’s 10-20-life law, anyone who shows a gun in the commission of some felonies is sentenced to an automatic 10 years in prison. Anyone who fires the gun gets a mandated 20 years, and if someone is shot or wounded, the penalty is an automatic 25 years-to-life sentence.
That’s just outrageous. It’s time for such arbitrary mandatory sentencing that ignores or discounts individual circumstances to end. Hopefully, Alexander’s refreshed case will set her free and bring about greatly needed criminal justice reforms.
Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.