After over four years of legal battles, Marissa Alexander was finally released from jail last week. For those of you who haven’t been following Marissa’s story, the Florida mother of three was arrested in 2010 on charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon after defending herself from her estranged husband, with whom she had a history of abuse. After her husband tried to strangle and beat her during an argument, Alexander fled the house into the garage, but realized she had left her car keys in the house. She returned to the house with her handgun to retrieve the keys, and, after her husband threatened to harm her, fired a warning shot into the ceiling, resulting in her later arrest. Marissa sought protection under the same “Stand Your Ground” law which (indirectly) allowed George Zimmerman to walk free after killing Trayvon Martin around the same time as Marissa’s initial arrest. At the pretrial, Judge Elizabeth Senterfitt rejected Ms. Alexander’s claims, stating she could have left the house rather than firing a warning shot. State Attorney Angela Corey pushed for full charges, despite Marissa’s clean legal record and the fact that no one was harmed during the incident. Forced apart from her infant and two young children, it took a jury only twelve minutes to convict her of three accounts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentence her to 20 years in prison. Under Florida’s 10-20-Life Law, the punishment for those convicted of aggravated assault if a weapon is fired, as Marissa was, is a mandatory minimum 20-year sentence.
An appellate court later overturned the original conviction, claiming faulty jury instructions impeded the fairness of the sentencing. Leading up to the re-trial, however, Prosecutor Angela Corey increased the severity of Alexander’s potential sentence from one singular 20 year jail stint to three consecutive 20 years. To avoid this and be reunited with her children, Marissa accepted a plea deal this past November. Alexander pled guilty in exchange for a three year sentence and two years of house arrest. At this point in her case, she had already served most of the three year term, and in fact was released in late January 2014.
It is a personal victory for Marissa and her supporters that she is now free (if under house arrest for the next two years), but a failure of our system that she was even ever in jail. With discussions of domestic violence at the Grammys and Super Bowl fresh in our minds, it is clear that our justice system overwhelmingly fails survivors of domestic violence. Marissa Alexander, a Black woman who is a survivor of intimate partner violence, was both over-policed and under-protected. She was over-policed in that, despite never injuring anyone and acting in self-defense, she faced first 20 years in prison and then 60 years. As a survivor of domestic abuse she was simultaneously under-protected, as she was put in a situation where she was forced to defend herself against her abusive husband. Her abuser, Rico Gray, freely admitted during his testimony to violently attacking Marissa and several other women in the past, but served minimal jail time in the cases that went to court. The system failed not only Marissa, but also all other women whom Gray hurt, by releasing him back into the public without any rehabilitation despite his history of violence.
The broad public support for Marissa helped raise attention to her case, and her supporters have raised enough money to pay for her ankle bracelet while she is under house arrest. But this is not enough. This will continue to not be enough until all survivors of domestic violence, when given the opportunity to defend themselves, do not face a life in jail for doing so. It says a lot that “Stand Your Ground” laws often refuse to cover women in situations of domestic violence, focusing instead on the unlikely scenario of a strange attacker in the home rather than the known threat of an abusive partner.
Marissa Alexander’s experience is not unique. The response to survivors of domestic violence needs to extend to understanding the many ways that survivors of intimate partner violence work to protect themselves and their children. Furthermore, it is clear that society as a whole needs to critically examine how our justice system genders and racializes “crimes” and the sentencing of “criminals”.