By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Just weeks after the Trayvon Martin shooting touched off a nationwide outrage, Florida is again the subject of a controversy involving a heated confrontation, a fired gun and an outcome for the shooter that seems beyond all common sense.
Only this time, the problem isn’t that the authorities seemed excessively lenient toward the shooter, as when Sanford police declined to charge neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman while the black teenager in a hoodie lay dead. This time, a judge has imposed a harsh mandatory sentence on a woman who fired what she called a warning shot to fend off her husband — hitting a wall and the ceiling but not harming anyone.
Marissa Alexander, the 31-year-old mother of three, had tried to claim self-defense against the husband during their 2010 confrontation. But that bid failed, as did her attempt to invoke Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, the statute which initially helped police conclude they couldn’t charge Zimmerman. Alexander rejected repeated plea bargains.
A Jacksonville jury found her guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Because she fired a gun while committing a felony, the judge had no choice but to give her the mandatory-minimum: 20 years in prison.
The May 11 sentencing sparked criticism from the local NAACP chapter and the district’s congresswoman, Corrine Brown, D-Jacksonville, who say the case is an example of how African-Americans like Alexander are mistreated by the justice system — pursued by eager prosecutors and incarcerated for longer periods.
Others are asking why the Stand Your Ground law, which greatly expanded the right to defend yourself with deadly force if you believe your life is threatened, didn’t apply to Alexander — an otherwise law-abiding woman who said she was being threatened by a husband who had been abusive.
“It’s because she’s black, simple as that,” said William Dean Luke, a commenter on the website Colorlines, voicing one widely held argument.
“Had she been white, she’d not have been arrested, her husband would have been, for domestic abuse,” Luke continued. “She fires a warning shot to preserve her life and gets 20 years immediately… and Zimmerman kills an unarmed boy in cold blood and doesn’t get arrested for 46 days? Yeah. You try and tell me it’s not about race.”
The case also highlights the state law that forced the judge to deliver a sentence with which he sounded uncomfortable. “The decision on an appropriate sentence … has been entirely taken out of my hands,” Circuit Judge James Daniel said when handing down the 20 years.
The Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville wrote a fine report about the law, which critics say “empower[s] prosecutors while handcuffing judges, juries and defense attorneys.”
The “10-20-life” law, which was proposed by then Gov. Jeb Bush in 1998 and signed into law in 1999, was designed to get tough on repeat criminals. 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.<
The laws have gotten credit for helping cut the violent-crime rate. But they don't take into account people who had no previous criminal records (like Alexander) or situations in which the gun that someone was carrying wasn't used in the crime.
One absurdity is that it excludes manslaughter from any minimum-sentence requirements. As the Times-Union writes: “That means if Alexander had actually killed her husband or one of his sons and been found guilty of manslaughter, she could have instead gotten as little as time served.”
“The laws unfairly punish those who fired just warning shots, as Alexander claimed,” the paper added.
Ironically, the prosecutor at Alexander’s trial was State Attorney Angela Corey, who is presiding over the state’s case against George Zimmerman.
The facts of the case, according to the Associated Press:
On Aug. 1, 2010, Alexander was working for a payroll software company. She was estranged from her husband, Rico Gray, and had a restraining order against him, even though they’d had a baby together just nine days before. Thinking he was gone, she went to their former home to retrieve the rest of her clothes, family members said.
An argument ensued, and Alexander said she feared for her life when she went out to her vehicle and retrieved the gun she legally owned. She came back inside and ended up firing a shot into the wall, which ricocheted into the ceiling.
Gray testified that he saw Alexander point the gun at him and looked away before she fired the shot. He claims she was the aggressor, and he had begged her to put away the weapon.
A judge threw out Alexander’s “stand your ground” self-defense claim, noting that she could have run out of the house to escape her husband but instead got the gun and went back inside. Alexander rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence and chose to go to trial. A jury deliberated 12 minutes before convicting her.