Protecting Marissa at the Expense of the Next Trayvon

Like George Zimmerman, Marissa Alexander discharged her weapon in Florida. Unlike Zimmerman, she was immediately arrested, despite that she did not kill or injure anyone. Moreover, a judge and jury rejected Alexander's "Stand Your Ground" defense, while Zimmerman might never see trial because of it.
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In recent weeks there has been an intense discussion across the nation about Marissa Alexander. Alexander is an African-American woman who shot at her abusive husband and was convicted for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Like George Zimmerman, Alexander discharged her weapon in the state of Florida. Unlike Zimmerman, she was immediately arrested at the scene of the shooting, despite the fact that she did not kill or injure anyone. Moreover, a judge and later a jury rejected Alexander's "Stand Your Ground" defense, while Zimmerman might never see trial because of it.

The discussion -- and a fair amount of outrage -- has focused on what to many seems like a discriminatory application of Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law, as well as the harsh effect of mandatory minimum sentences. It is an unfortunate truth that the administration of justice in this country is not yet 100% color blind. I also agree that Florida's mandatory minimum law, which was enacted in 1999, is a terrible system for sentencing offenders. It should be repealed.

I worry, however, that in their zeal to defend Marissa Alexander, her supporters are inadvertently bestowing legitimacy on NRA/ALEC "Stand Your Ground" laws. In effect, they are arguing that if Zimmerman gets away with murder because of "Stand Your Ground," then Marissa Alexander should certainly be excused for her "harmless" gunplay.

There are three serious problems with that analysis. First, whether or not Alexander was legally within her rights to shoot at her husband, hers was a poor decision that should not be glorified. In fact, if there are parallels in the two cases, it is that both Zimmerman and Alexander exhibited extremely poor judgment when they decided to use their firearms. Second, even prior to the enactment of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, Alexander would not have had any duty to retreat from her home if/when she reasonably feared "great bodily harm." Third, and most disturbing, the current debate over Marissa Alexander serves only to further the interests of the National Rifle Association. They must be sitting in their high-rise offices in Fairfax, Va., marveling at how they created a country where even political moderates are now arguing for a wider application of their "Kill at Will" philosophy.

Just the Facts, Please
Much of the commentary on Marissa Alexander to date has foregone a careful analysis of the sequence of events that led her to discharge her firearm on August 1, 2010. A careful reading of the record is crucial, however, to understanding her case. Here is what we know based on police reports, legal filings, and witness accounts.

Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, was originally married to Lincoln Alexander, with whom she has two children. The two eventually divorced. She met Rico Gray, Sr. in 2007. In 2009, Alexander sought and received a restraining order against Gray (who has admitted to hitting Alexander and abusing "all five of his babies' mamas except one"). After discovering she was pregnant, Alexander requested that the court remove the no-contact provision of the protective injunction, leaving the remainder intact. On May 14, 2010, while the restraining order was still in place, Alexander and Gray were married. According to court documents, Alexander ceased living with Gray in their marital home in Jacksonville, Fla., two weeks after getting married; and lived with her mother for the two months leading up to the shooting.

On July 31, 2010, Alexander drove to that home, parked her car in the garage, closed the garage door, and spent the night there. The next morning, Gray arrived at the home with his two sons (ages 9 and 13), also entering through the garage. The four ate breakfast together with no incident. After breakfast, Alexander went into the master bedroom and just before going into the bathroom, handed her phone to Gray to show him pictures of her newborn child, Rihanna N. Gray. According to a sworn deposition, Gray and Alexander began to fight when, looking through Alexander's phone, Gray discovered text messages to Alexander from her former husband. Gray opened the bathroom door to confront Alexander about the paternity of the baby and a verbal argument ensued. During the fight, Alexander alleged that Gray pushed her and the bathroom door hit her in the leg. She also claimed that Gray "put his hands around [her] neck." According to Alexander's own testimony, she did not suffer serious bodily harm as a result of this altercation.

Alexander eventually exited the bathroom and Gray moved downstairs to the living room where his children were. Shortly thereafter, Alexander came downstairs and bypassed them as she made her way to the garage. Alexander testified that she then tried to leave the house through the garage but could not get the garage door to open. Gray, however, claimed that before Alexander went into the garage, she told him, "I got something for your ass."

While in the garage, Alexander -- a concealed handgun permit holder in the state of Florida -- retrieved a handgun from the glove box of her car. She then returned to the living room. Alexander claimed that Gray then threatened to kill her. In a deposition, Gray initially backed up his wife's story, stating, "I told her if she ever cheated on me, I would kill her." Gray has since recanted, stating he lied during his deposition after conspiring with his wife in an effort to protect her. He now claims that when Alexander pointed the gun at him, "[he] begged and pleaded for [his] life." After Gray allegedly threatened her, Alexander fired a warning shot into the ceiling. This account, however, is disputed by Florida prosecutor Angela Corey, who has produced photographs showing bullet holes in the kitchen wall of the home (the living room is on the other side). Gray claims that his sons were next to him when the shot was fired, but Alexander says they had fled the room. Corey has stated, "[The bullet] happened to deflect up into the ceiling, but if it had deflected down it could have hit one of the children."

It is clear that after the shot was fired, Gray fled the home and called 911. He can be heard on a 911 recording telling a dispatcher, "She said she's sick of this shit. She came back with gun in hand and shot ... Please hurry up. She was shooting at me and my sons...Me and my two kids just ran out of the house." Alexander stayed inside the house and at no point called 911. She was arrested that same day and charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Alexander posted bail prior to arraignment and was ordered by the court to have no contact with Gray or his two sons. Despite this agreement, Alexander went to Gray's home on December 30, 2010. Gray claimed it was to drop off Rihanna with him. Alexander's family states that she went to Gray's residence that evening to obtain his signature for medical insurance paperwork for Rihanna. Whatever the reason for the visit, Gray claimed that Alexander "became enraged and began striking him on the face with her fist." One of Gray's sons called 911 and an officer who responded to the complaint noted in his report that "underneath [Gray's] left eye was swollen and bloodied." Gray claimed he did not strike Alexander, a story which was corroborated separately by his two children.

The officer met with Alexander an hour later at a nearby location to get her side of the story. She contested Gray's account, stating that he was the one who became enraged and struck her. The officer, however, observed no visible injuries on Alexander. He arrested her on the spot for domestic battery, and on the way to jail Alexander stated that she felt lightheaded and became unresponsive. She was treated and deemed to be fine. At this point, the arresting officer observed a small cut under Alexander's eye that he stated had not been there prior to her entering his squad car. Alexander pled no contest to the charge of domestic battery and was sentenced to time served.

Meanwhile, in regards to the incident of August 1, 2010, Alexander filed a motion to dismiss the charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, citing Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which "allows an individual engaged in a lawful activity in a place where he or she has a right to be to meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another." On August 17, 2011, a Florida circuit court judge issued an order denying Alexander's motion to dismiss, finding that Alexander's actions were "inconsistent with a person who is in genuine fear for his or her life." The judge noted that Alexander did not leave, or attempt to leave, through the unobstructed back or front door of the home. She also speculated that the garage door may not have been jammed because Alexander entered the home through the garage the previous day and Gray entered through it earlier that morning with no incident.

After Alexander's motion was denied, prosecutor Angela Corey offered her a plea agreement for three years in prison. Alexander rejected this offer and took her chances at trial, where she again asserted "Stand Your Ground" as a defense. In March 2012, the jury rejected this defense and found Alexander guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon in less than 15 minutes of deliberation. Because Alexander discharged a firearm during the crime, she fell under the state's mandatory minimum requirement. On May 11, 2012, a Florida judge sentenced Alexander to 20 years in prison.

Rolling the Dice
There are a couple of things we should all be able to agree on.

For starters, the mandatory punishment that Marissa Alexander received for her crime is outrageous. Her 20-year sentence was the result of a Florida law passed in 1999 which mandates a minimum 10-year prison term for certain felonies, or attempted felonies, in which the offender possesses a firearm; a minimum 20-year prison term when the firearm is discharged, and; a minimum sentence of 25 years to life when the firearm is used to injure or kill someone. According to Greg Newburn, the Florida director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM), "The irony of the 10-20-life law is the people who actually think they're innocent of the crime, they roll the dice and take their chances, and they get the really harsh prison sentences. Whereas the people who think they are actually guilty of the crime take the plea deal and get out (of prison) well before. So it certainly isn't working the way it is intended."

It is also patently clear that Rico Gray, Sr. is a dangerous man who takes pride in abusing women. There may have been times when Alexander was within her rights to use lethal force against him. Whether or not the events of August 1, 2010 rise to that level is difficult to say because she suffered no injuries and there are contradictory versions of the facts. But it is clear this man presented a threat to her safety and well-being.

Better Options
Any reasonable person, however, must look critically at Alexander's decision to introduce a firearm into a situation in which two children were present. It is extremely fortunate that neither Rico Gray Jr. nor Pernell Gray were injured or killed that day. The outcome could easily have been different.

Domestic violence prevention advocates would also be the first to tell you that introducing a firearm into a domestic dispute exponentially increases the risk to the woman being abused. According to an amicus brief filed by the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) in United States v. Hayes -- which was joined by domestic violence prevention organizations from 41 states, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands -- the presence of a gun during an incident of domestic violence makes it 12 times more likely that the encounter will result in the murder of the abused party. Futures Without Violence, a national and international domestic violence prevention organization, has called guns and domestic violence a "lethal combination." By elevating Marissa Alexander to hero status, we send a very dangerous message to women in similar situations.

But even if you insist that Alexander was justified in discharging her handgun, it is important to recognize that she did not need the NRA's protection to claim that hers was a legitimate act of self-defense. Prior to the enactment of Florida's 2005 "Stand Your Ground" law, there existed a common law right to self-defense in the home: the "Castle Doctrine." The Castle Doctrine is based on the feudal maxim, "A man's home is his castle." It relieves individuals of the common law duty to retreat from their residence before resorting to deadly force in self-defense, so long as that deadly force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. The Florida Supreme Court, in its 1999 ruling in Weiand v. State, expanded the Castle Doctrine to include situations in which an individual is acting in self-defense against a home co-occupant.

The National Rifle Association's "Stand Your Ground" legislation changed Florida law by unnecessarily and dangerously expanding Castle Doctrine protections into public places where we all have a right to be. Had the "Stand Your Ground" law not been in place on the night of February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman would have been required to retreat from his public confrontation with Trayvon Martin, and would almost certainly have been arrested on the spot after killing him.

The bottom line is that Marissa Alexander did not need "Stand Your Ground" as a defense. If she had been able to prove her version of events to a jury, she would have been protected under the Castle Doctrine.

Conflicting Visions for America

The truth is there can be no real justice under the "Stand Your Ground" law. Equating someone who is protecting herself from domestic violence with a vigilante who arbitrarily metes out "street justice" only serves to embolden the next George Zimmerman. If our interest is in protecting women at risk, then the model articulated in the Weiand v. State case strikes a much better balance, giving abused partners the ability to "stand their ground" at home, without creating a society where lone wolves can provoke public conflicts and then settle them at gunpoint.

The NRA has furthered its goal of expanding the market for "carry" guns by enacting "Stand Your Ground" laws in 25 states. But they stand to achieve a far greater victory if our national dialogue shifts from sparing as many lives as possible while guaranteeing self-defense rights for those who have no other options, to expanding the ability to kill at will until the ancient injunction to respect human life becomes virtually meaningless.

In the end, how we view this case depends on the type of society we want to create for our kids. The NRA is perfectly content to arm everyone -- abusers and the abused alike -- and have them engage in shootouts in order to preserve their lives. What could be better for gun industry profits and the NRA's millionaire leaders, right? But shouldn't we be trying to dial down the violence and create peaceful communities? If that's the goal -- and it should be -- we need to put down the guns and come up with more serious, sustainable solutions.

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