Ah, Florida, cradle of justice. One day, when they document the great codifiers of the law, the names will ring out: Hammurabi, Solon, Justinian, Blackstone, Napoleon, Tallahassee. Last Friday, the state that's hosted the politically ugly Trayvon Martin reality show handed down a 20-year sentence against Marissa Alexander.
The two cases beg for comparison. Martin, an African American teen, was chased, beaten and shot by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman. Zimmerman claimed he feared for his life and had to stand his ground. Alexander, a 31-year-old African American mom with a Master's degree, claimed the same thing in her defense against an abusive husband. Zimmerman went free the night of his shooting and wasn't booked for murder for 45 days, until officials were shamed by an international outcry. Alexander—who has been incarcerated since Feb. 8, 2010—will, thanks to Florida's automatic sentencing laws, spend roughly the next 7,300 in prison.
The easy conclusion to reach is that the justice system in the state of Florida tolerates firing guns at, into, and through black people, but that their possessing and using guns themselves is a public safety crisis that must be stamped out immediately. As a long-time resident of the state, I can attest to the fact that there is no shortage of citizens who would advocate this point of view, often publicly, in predominantly white bars, at the point in the evening when drunk people have figured out exactly everything wrong with the world and realize that you have not.
Alexander's case, however, is more complicated than that.
On Aug. 1, 2010, Alexander began fighting with her 36-year-old husband Rico Gray in the house where she lived. The two had been living separately following a 2009 incident in which he shoved her down into a bathtub and she hit her head hard enough to need a hospital visit. In a deposition, Gray admitted to hitting her, as well as having "five baby mamas," all of whom he hit except one, all of whom "never knew what I was thinking or what I might do. Hit them, push them." Prior to the August incident, Gray also admits that he and Alexander had had four or five other violent domestic clashes.
What muddies this story immediately is that Alexander filed a 2009 restraining order against Gray, then later amended the order so that the two could have contact and married him. She changed her mind about the no-contact provision after learning she was pregnant with his child, although prior to the 2010 shooting, she still lived with her mother and not with Gray.
The August 1 incident is likewise less than simple. Alexander claims that Gray discovered texts on her phone from her ex-husband and flew into a rage, hitting her, attempting to strangle her and threatening that no one else could have her. She tried to flee out the garage, but the garage door mechanism was broken, leaving her cornered in the dark without a cell phone or keys to her truck. She got her (licensed and concealed-carry permitted) gun from her glove compartment and re-entered the home, expecting that Gray and her two stepsons might have left. She discovered that Gray and the stepsons hadn't left, and when he charged at her and said, "Bitch, I will kill you," she fired a warning shot angled up and away from him. He then ran out with his kids and called the police, claiming that she had shot at him and his sons.
This account gets further complicated by two more factors. One, Gray initially agreed with almost all of Alexander's statement before contradicting it. He first said that the garage door was broken and that she couldn't leave, that he had threatened to have her beaten up by his friends. Most importantly, he said she'd had no intention of shooting him:
She knew the relationships I been in and I put my hand on her before. I honestly think she just didn't want me to put my hands on her anymore, so she did what she feel like she have to do to make sure she wouldn't get hurt, you know.... The gun was never actually pointed at me. When she raised the gun down and raised it up, you know, the gun was never pointed at me.
Then the story changed to accord more with his 911 call. Two, Alexander assaulted Gray while out on bail. She claims that she visited him to sign health insurance papers for their child that she'd given birth to, nine days prior to the August 1 incident, but that he cornered her in the garage and attacked her again when their friends were in another part of the house. She was admitted to a hospital that night with injuries consistent with being struck in the face.
Other details exacerbate the matter further. The prosecution claimed that the shot Alexander fired was at a height one could reasonably infer was meant to strike Gray: "It's not a warning shot when you fire and it comes in at about head level through the wall and only then goes up into the ceiling and into the living room." Meanwhile, Alexander's family has noted that she was a confident hand with a gun and had visited shooting ranges all her life. Alexander's ex-husband adds that the prosecution did not use additional photo evidence that showed the trajectory of the bullet passed upward and out of the room, into the ceiling, but that only prompts the question: Did Alexander's defense team use them, and did they argue the trajectory was true and not a ricochet?
Legal arguments and personnel surrounding this violent domestic conflict most strongly link it to the Trayvon Martin killing. Of Marissa Alexander's actions, prosecutor Angela Corey said,
She didn't fire into the ceiling. [Alexander's representatives] are blatantly lying. She fired the shot toward the living room, where they were, at an adult that she was angry with. She might have been angry at him, but what if that bullet had struck one of those kids? Who would be crying for Marissa Alexander then? Who fights for those two children? She fired at two children. These two young boys had no choice... Marissa Alexander made her decision.
Corey is a Duval County prosector, and not responsible for the initial investigation into the Martin killing in Seminole County. But she has been assigned the prosecution of George Zimmerman. Given those ties, it's hard to hear her "won't someone please think of the children!" hand-wringing and not think of the heel-ruts dug into the earth by every person in the criminal justice system who had to be dragged near Martin's dead body. Trayvon Martin was a child, too. He deserved an advocacy as zealous as the one afforded to two children who walked away alive, who might not have been in the room where a gun was shot (one of the children in Alexander's case has changed his testimony, just as his father did), who might have stood in another room as their father attempted to terrorize Marissa Alexander just as George Zimmerman did a teen with an iced-tea can.
The parallels don't end with the prosecutor. Although Corey likewise dismisses Alexander's claim that her actions were acceptable under Florida's Stand Your Ground law, CBSNews reported that Alexander's
judge rejected a motion by Alexander's attorney to grant her immunity under the "stand your ground" law. According to the judge's order, "there is insufficient evidence that the Defendant reasonably believed deadly force was needed to prevent death or great bodily harm to herself," and that the fact that she came back into the home, instead of leaving out the front or back door "is inconsistent with a person who is in genuine fear for her life."
The ruling is galling in light of the Martin killing, when you consider that George Zimmerman ignored a 911 dispatcher's comment that they did not need him to exit his car and pursue Trayon Martin, that he then hunted Martin through a neighborhood, fought him and shot him. Zimmerman walked free on the basis of a Stand Your Ground self-defense, despite not driving away in his safe and locked SUV, tracking and confronting the imminent Skittles-snacking threat to his life and engaging him in a fight.
Worse, the judge's ruling galls on the basis of the fucking statute (emphases mine):
A person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:
(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself
Consider the decision made against Alexander again: the judge ruled that Alexander, who was in her mother's home and the place where she had been a resident for months, somehow had a duty to retreat from her home, in contravention of both the Stand Your Ground statute and the Castle Doctrine concept from which it sprung. Moreover, she should have left from the garage whose inoperable door even the alleged victim, Gray, admitted she could not use. He also initially acknowledged in a deposition that he blocked her only other egress while threatening to have her beaten up, and that he'd beaten her before, by his own admission, four or five times. According to her—and according to him—he said no one else could have her, then allegedly charged at her while threatening to kill her. Nonetheless, the judge concluded that she did not reasonably believe that shooting a gun without actually shooting a person was necessary to prevent great bodily harm to herself. This time, apparently.
Given the above, given the Martin context, it's hard not to think that when someone guns down a black person in Florida, that's just cleanup. But when a black person starts shooting off a gun, then you've got a real problem. Publicly, maybe that's how it plays. Legally, it's worse.
The implications of the Alexander conviction and sentencing go deeper. It has taken decades for American courts to get past the antiquated notion that a wedding ring constitutes absolute consent for any treatment, that husbands can actually rape and terrorize wives, that being a spouse to a woman you abuse does not immunize you from criminal prosecution. Not only does the Alexander ruling transgress the obscenely liberal affirmative defense of Stand Your Ground, it appears to decline it to wives.
Marissa Alexander wasn't afforded the privilege of being subject to repeated beatings and an in-the-moment strangling and having it count substantially in favor of her arguing that she "reasonably" believed she could be subject to great bodily harm. That wasn't good enough, despite a history of domestic violence, a modified restraining order and being in a home that was not her husband's. What signal does that send to women who live with their husbands, who don't have court orders, who don't have documented hospital and police reports of physical abuse? If an actual paper trail is bullshit, then the first offense is free. Beating a woman might as well be like signing up for the Columbia House Record Club: it's just free shit at first, but if you don't pay attention, eventually it might cost you.
Image by Jim Cooke.