National civil rights leaders are mounting support behind a 33-year-old mother who received 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot into the wall of a garage in response to threats of bodily harm from her husband. She is now free on bail while awaiting a new trial.
Marissa Alexander of Jacksonville, Fla., is quickly becoming a household name as her case has confounded people across the nation. With a new trial now set for March 31, 2014, millions will watch to see whether justice prevails.
“The members of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women are outraged at the sentencing of Marissa Alexander to a 20-year prison term for discharging her firearm in an effort to protect herself from an abusive partner,” says Michele McNeill Emery, NCBW national president in a statement. “There must be an equitable and comprehensive judicial review in the case of Marissa Alexander.”
The First District Court of Appeals agreed in September, overturning the verdict and granting her a new trial. Released on bail since Nov. 27, Alexander will likely spend Christmas with her infant and other two children. Support from civil rights organizations are lining up with hopes that she will never have to go back.
The announcement of the new trial is a “welcome development in a case that represents the double standards in our justice system,” stated outgoing NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous. “From the streets to the court house, race continues to influence the judicial process, and it certainly seemed to have played a role here.”
The new trial has been a long time coming. Alexander has spent nearly two years in prison already for the August 1, 2010 incident. She was convicted by a jury in only 12 minutes in May 2012, sending shockwaves through the civil rights community and among women’s advocacy groups. In July last year, hundreds attended an NAACP rally in Jacksonville in support of her.
Illuminating the injustice is the clear comparison in the “stand your ground” case of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted after he shot and killed unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin.
“The Trayvon Martin and Marissa Alexander cases put Stand Your Ground laws under the microscope,” said a statement from the Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network. “The cases brought to light the inequalities that lie within its interpretation and the fact that it is in place in a majority of states underscores that we must fight to repeal the laws. Gun violence has been an issue in low-income communities for years, but the Sandy Hook tragedy created an urgency to address gun laws. While Congress failed to act on sensible gun legislation, we must continue to demand action.”
Alexander was not allowed to use the “Stand Your Ground” law as her defense because prosecutors successfully convinced the court that she did not act in self-defense. Meanwhile the Marissa Alexander story is being recounted with increasing passion:
“The prosecutor in this case, Angela Corey, is the same one who only reluctantly charged George Zimmerman in the massacre of Trayvon Martin, the same prosecutor who assembled a flawed legal team, the same prosecutor who believes in the Stand Your Ground laws. That is, except for Marissa Alexander, who stood her ground against an abusive husband and hurt no one,” wrote columnist Julianne Malveaux. “Her conviction has been thrown out because a judge ruled that the prosecution, not the defense, has the burden of proof.”
Alexander was erroneously asked to prove that she had been beaten, leading to an illegal jury instruction. That instruction is the reason the appellate court is allowing Alexander another chance at justice.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. took to radio with an appeal for her support. “This is such a classic expression of how subjective the Stand Your Ground laws are. One guy murders a man in cold blood and he’s walking free; (a) woman shoots to defend herself from an aggressive husband …and she’s serving 20 years in jail,” he said on the Joe Madison radio show. He encouraged the audience to get involved with the movement, including making an appeal to Florida Gov. Rick Scott.
Alexander’s case grew nationally after she was sentenced to a mandatory 20 years for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Because she fired the shot during the incident, the case fell under Florida’s “10-20-life” law, which mandates a 20-year sentence for the use of a firearm during certain crimes.
Alexander’s husband, Rico Gray, told members of the media that his wife first punched him “after he confronted her about texts she had sent to her ex-husband,” the Associated Press reported.
However, in court depositions, Gray admits to having threatened her.
“If my kids wouldn’t have been there, I probably would have put my hand on her,” he said in court depositions. “Probably hit her. I got five baby mammas and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one.”
Alexander is being represented pro bono by former assistant U. S. Attorney Bruce Zimmet of Fort Lauderdale attorney and Mike Dowd, a New York-based attorney, known for his work in the battered women’s movement.
Despite her husband’s version of the story, the court of public opinion appears to be winning, mainly because of the documented court records of his repeated abuse of Alexander.
“In the case of Ms. Alexander, it is public record that she had been victim to repeated incidences of domestic violence and critical injury by this person,” says Emery of NCBW. “Even at the time of this incident per public record she was recovering from a severe physical beating at the hands of the same perpetrator that required hospitalization and resulted in the early birth of her child. It is also public record that Ms. Alexander had asked for protection from abuse from law enforcement from this person. At the time of this incident we think it is no doubt she was afraid and not in the best frame of mind given her history of repeated abuse.”
The NCBW quotes statistics from the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center. “The data indicates that Black women were disproportionately murdered at a rate two and a half times higher than Black males at 2.61 percent per 100,000 versus 0.99 per 100,000.The report states that compared to a Black male; a Black female is far more likely to be killed by her spouse or an acquaintance,” NCBW recounts the study titled, “When Men Murder Women, a 2011 Analysis of Homicide Data”. It concludes, “Eighty three percent of black females homicides studied were killed by a black male during the course of an argument.”
Alexander, who had no previous criminal record, rejected a plea deal to take three years in prison, opting for the jury trial instead.
NAACP Florida State Conference President Adora Obi Nweze, says the Alexander case has become a symbol for many injustices. “We have so many cases of injustice in Florida, and while we only hear about one or two, there are so many more that go unreported. We will continue fighting for all the other Marissa Alexanders out there.”