See Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law in ACTION!

August 6, 2012

Photo Courtesy: Getty Images

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On May 11, 2012, 31-year-old Marissa Alexander, mother of three, was sentenced to twenty years in prison after firing what she claimed was a warning shot at her abusive husband, Rico Gray, 36. Despite previous offenses made by Gray, including an incident in 2009 which left Alexander hospitalized, the state of Florida maintains that Alexander is not protected under the controversial “Stand Your Ground” law and that on the day of the altercation, she was the aggressor.

Florida’s Stand Your Ground law has been met with much debate, and events occurring in recent months have made it into something of a hot-button issue. Following the slaying of Trayvon Martin, 17, by neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, a media storm has fallen upon the Florida suburb of Sanford, posing the question of what constitutes self defense in the state of Florida as well as eliciting the racial implications of the case. Nicknamed the “reverse Trayvon Martin” by some media outlets, Alexander’s situation undoubtedly draws some interesting comparisons to Martin’s, though it seems that a larger issue looms like the telltale elephant in the room; not of race, but of victim’s rights, self defense, and the taboo subject of domestic violence. Rewind to August 1, 2010, 130 miles north of Sanford in Jacksonville, Fla. An altercation erupts at the home of Marissa Alexander and Rico Gray after Gray finds text messages on Alexander’s cell phone from her former husband and father of her two oldest children, Lincoln Alexander. According to Alexander, Gray “assaulted me, shoving, strangling and holding me against my will, preventing me from fleeing all while I begged for him to leave.” Alexander eventually escapes to the garage, in the hopes of driving away in her truck. In her haste, she realizes that she doesn’t have her keys, and is briefly “trapped in the dark with no way out.” In order to escape, she must return to the house, and in an effort to protect herself against further assault, she retrieves her semi-automatic pistol. The fight culminates in the kitchen, where Alexander reports that Gray threatened to kill her (all the while in the presence of the two eldest children) and charged at her, prompting her to stand her ground and fire the warning shot that ricocheted off of the wall and hit the ceiling. Alexander is arrested, and convicted of three counts of aggravated assault, against Gray and the two children present. In a sworn deposition, Gray claimed that he was the aggressor in the exchange, but later changed his story in court, asserting that he had begged for his life during the altercation. Alexander’s children (both eleven-year-old twins, nine at the time of the incident) were questioned and expressed their fear, though the eldest son later changed his statement to police. Stand Your Ground states that one has the right to defend oneself when clear and imminent danger is present. If that is the case, why wasn’t Marissa Alexander protected under the law? Angela B. Corey acted as the prosecutor in the Alexander case. Corey has gained a great deal of notoriety and praise from the Trayvon Martin case, ironically bringing down second- degree murder charges on George Zimmerman, who also attempted to invoke the Stand Your Ground law. Corey has actively voiced her condemnation of protesters who maintain that Alexander was wrongly convicted. “Alexander was not fleeing from an abuser,” Corey has stated to the press. Gray has admitted in depositions that he has hit every girlfriend he has been with except for one and had threatened Alexander’s life if she had ever cheated on him, which undoubtedly was the root of the exchange on August 1. He has also been arrested twice for domestic battery. When questioned about Gray’s violent past, Corey stated that, “A person’s propensity for violence is only one factor that would have allowed her to use Stand Your Ground at the moment when she fired…If that’s what you’re saying, she can walk into a room and just see him and shoot.” But Alexander did not walk into a room, see him, and shoot. In which case, she would be guilty, and rightfully so. Instead, Alexander, like countless other women was in an abusive relationship, felt that her life was in danger and then attempted to preserve it. And, like countless other women, Alexander was a victim of victim-blaming. She attempted to invoke a law which, on the surface, appears to protect victims, but instead allows abusers to walk free. One of the primary arguments used by the prosecution was that Alexander could have escaped through the garage, front, and back doors, despite the fact that the Stand Your Ground states that a victim has no duty to flee. A clear message is being sent: “You are abused and are therefore at fault because you did not escape the abuse.” The most dangerous time for a battered woman in an abusive relationship is upon attempting to leave the relationship. It is at this point that self defense is paramount, but if the law won’t protect victims, who will? Coupled with Stand Your Ground is Florida’s 10-20-Life law, a variation of mandatory minimum sentencing, which also hindered Alexander’s defense. Implemented in 1999, the law was credited with helping lower the violent crime rate in the state. The law states that anyone who shows a gun in the commission of a felony gets an automatic 10 years in prison. If the gun is fired, it’s an automatic 20 years. Shoot and wound someone: 25 years to life. The law strips judges of the use of discretion, and, as was Alexander’s case, victims are unfairly sentenced. People like Alexander: a mother, a model citizen with a Ph.D., and, unfortunately, a victim of spousal abuse, are lumped with a “thug robbing a liquor store,” as stated by Victor Crist, Republican state legislator who penned the 10-20-Life bill. Alexander’s fate was not the intention of lawmakers, but laws such as these only perpetuate the idea that victims, overwhelmingly women, are to blame. Though the media and social advocacy groups, most notably the NAACP, have made Marissa Alexander’s case, along with Trayvon Martin’s, into a symbol of racial injustice, such close comparisons to Martin eclipse the greater societal implications of Alexander’s case; the fact that we haven’t come as far as we think in women’s rights, harkening to the days of yore when a woman could be sexually assaulted and then punished as an adulteress. When it’s all boiled down, a female victim in 2012 can still be made into a social pariah, the only difference being the media coverage. 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