Victim of an Unjust Law

For all of the division that Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law has sowed in recent weeks, one positive to emerge from the ordeal is a public discussion about the right to self-defense and its limits. Clearly, some acts seem to fall very close to the line between lawful self-defense and criminal misconduct. Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, seemed to be firmly planted on the right side of that line. But because of Florida's inflexible sentencing laws, Ms. Alexander now faces a mandatory minimum of 20 years in state prison, despite the fact that she did not harm anyone.

According to a Jacksonville, Fla., jury, Ms. Alexander violated Florida's prohibition on assault with a deadly weapon with no intent to harm. To be sure, assault with a deadly weapon is a serious crime and the community is right to punish those who commit it. The law is unjust, however, because it imposes the same harsh prison term -- 20 years -- for individuals whose conduct, while technically meeting the particular elements of the offense, is very different.

If asked to give an example of the type of crime that merits Florida's 20-year sentence for committing a felony with a deadly weapon, one might think of an armed robber who holds up an elderly couple at gunpoint while his partner in crime loots the couple's earthly possessions. Or an unhinged predator who intimidates a petrified convenience store clerk into handing over all of his cash by shooting five bullets at the counter register. These examples would be pretty accurate; robbers make up the second largest category of offenders sentenced to automatic 20-year sentences. Murderers are first.

Marissa Alexander is not a robber or a killer. She is 31-year-old mother of three who was afraid for her life one August afternoon two years ago. Her husband was threatening to kill her and there was reason to believe he might make good on his threat. He had physically abused her in the past, one time sending her to the hospital. As he stated in a deposition, "I pushed her back and she fell in the bathtub and hit her head and I -- you know, by the time I ran downstairs and got in my car to leave, you know, that's the time I went to jail, the police picked me up down the street."

Ms. Alexander eventually got a restraining order against her husband, but on Aug. 1, 2010, he walked through that order and into her home. After discovering what he considered suspicious text messages on her phone, Ms. Alexander's husband allegedly choked her and refused to let her leave the house, where her two stepsons were also present. After breaking free and making her way to the garage, Ms. Alexander realized she did not have her car keys, and couldn't leave the house.

Fearing for her safety, she grabbed her legally registered handgun and re-entered her home to retrieve her keys. Her husband continued to threaten her and refused to leave despite her repeated requests. Finally, Ms. Alexander fired one shot from her handgun into the ceiling and her husband left. Ms. Alexander's husband told investigators in a deposition that she never pointed the gun at him or her stepsons and that she probably fired the warning shot because, "I honestly think she just didn't want me to put my hands on her anymore, so she did what she feel (sic) like she have (sic) to do to make sure she wouldn't get hurt."

Ms. Alexander's husband would later change his story and say she pointed the gun at him and her two stepsons. Ms. Alexander was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault (one count related to her husband, and two more for her stepsons). Confident of her innocence, she rejected a plea bargain and went to trial. In a quick verdict that stunned those in the courtroom, the jury found Ms. Alexander guilty.

The ball is now in the government's court. If State Attorney Angela Corey does not seek to have the indictment dismissed and reach a more just conclusion to this matter, Marissa Alexander's last hope is that Gov. Rick Scott will commute her sentence or grant a full pardon. If neither official steps up to do the right thing, Ms. Alexander will spend the next 20 years in prison, despite the fact that she hurt no one. This cannot be what then-Gov. Jeb Bush and the legislature intended when they passed the 10-20-Life gun law. It cannot be what Gov. Scott and the legislature support today.