If you believe the news stories coming out of Florida, it’s impossible for blacks to get a fair shake in the Sunshine State. First there was Travyon Martin. Now there is Marissa Alexander.
In May of 2012 Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison on three counts of aggravated assault — or, as most accounts read, for firing a “warning shot” to protect herself from her abusive husband. The “he said, she said” case has come under retroactive scrutiny in the wake of the Zimmerman trial, and many are comparing the two: Both are said to be failures of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, both miscarriages of justice against the black community, both egregious cases of overcharging by fire-breathing prosecutor Angela Corey.
Critics may have a case on that third charge (I’ve mentioned Corey’s penchant for overcharging before), but that is the extent of the similarities. Still, Marissa Alexander has joined the ranks of martyrs since her conviction earlier this year, being held up, alongside Martin, as another victim of Floridian racism.
Determining what actually happened between Alexander and her husband in the summer of 2010 is no easy matter, but here are the basics:
In September 2009, Alexander, a 31-year-old divorcée, obtained a restraining order against Rico Gray, 37, after he beat her so badly that she had to go to the hospital. Six months later, they married. In July 2010, two months after walking down the aisle, Alexander gave birth to their first child. During the preceding two months Alexander had not been living with Gray, but on the evening of July 31, just over a week after giving birth, Alexander left her newborn daughter at the hospital and went to Gray’s home, where she stayed the night. The next morning, Gray arrived at the house with his two sons, 9 and 13, and the family had a pleasant breakfast.
The trouble began when Alexander gave Gray her cell phone so that he could see pictures of their new daughter. On the phone he spotted text messages from Alexander to her ex-husband, arousing Gray’s suspicions about the true father of the baby. A “verbal argument ensued,” according to court documents, and Alexander went into the garage.
Here is where things get messy. According to Alexander, she went to the garage to flee Gray, who was threatening her. So why did she go back into the house? Alexander has been less than consistent on this point. She has claimed that the garage door would not open, forcing her back inside, and also that she had forgotten her keys in the house. In either case, she grabbed her handgun from the glove compartment (the gun was legal, and Alexander had a concealed-carry permit) and went back inside.
And here things get messier. Alexander says that Gray threatened to kill her, so she fired a “warning shot.” But according to the court order denying Alexander’s motion to dismiss, she had pointed the gun in the direction of “all three victims” — Gray and his two young sons — and fired a shot “nearly missing [Gray’s] head.”
Gray’s account aligns with this — and adds a bit of color. Gray says that just before heading into the garage, Alexander told him, “I got something for your ass.” When she came back in with the gun, he put his hands in the air. After the shot, he fled out the front door with his sons and called 911. “She said she’s ‘sick of this sh*t,’” he told the dispatcher. “She shot at me, inside the house, while my boys were standing right next to me. Lord have mercy.” Alexander never called the police.
Gray’s history of abuse does not make him a sympathetic victim, but victim — in this case, at least — he seems to be. Defenders of Alexander like to quote Gray’s initial deposition: “I got five baby mamas,” he says at one point, “and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one.” He claims that the text messages put him “in a rage,” and that he told Alexander, “If I can’t have you nobody going to have you.” As for her trying to flee the house, Gray “knew that she couldn’t leave out the garage because the garage door was locked.” He also tells a markedly different story about the events surrounding the gunshot: “She came back through the doors and she had a gun. And she said, ‘You need to leave.’ I told her, ‘I ain’t leaving until you talk to me’ . . . and I started walking towards her and she shot in the air.”
But the deposition is a problem for two reasons: First, because it was in obvious conflict with his initial report to police. (You can listen to Gray’s call to 911 here; he sounds decidedly panicked, and he repeats his story to the dispatcher — several times – consistently.) Second, and more important, because Gray lied. According to Judge Elizabeth A. Senterfitt, Gray and Alexander met in November of 2010 and “discussed what [Gray] should say during [his] deposition.” In April 2012, CNN reported that “Gray said he lied during his deposition after conspiring with his wife in an effort to protect her.”
Perhaps Gray has a hidden chivalrous side. But, either way, it does not matter. The evidence supports his initial report, not the claims in the deposition.
And that evidence was more than sufficient for a Florida judge to promptly reject Alexander’s appeal to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. As Legal Insurrection’s Andrew Branca explains, in the eyes of the law, two separate conflicts occurred on August 1, 2010: a “non-deadly conflict” that ended when Alexander went into the garage, and a “deadly” one that started when she returned with a gun. Stand Your Ground applies only to a “person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked.” Alexander began the latter confrontation, and she was the attacker. It was behavior “inconsistent with a person who is in genuine fear for his or her life,” to use the judge’s words.
Furthermore, Alexander’s fear seems to have evaporated rather quickly. After convincing her husband to lie in his deposition, Alexander returned to Gray’s house while out on bail in December 2010. According to the incident report drafted by the Jacksonville sheriff’s office, when Gray refused to let her stay the night, an argument broke out. Police arrived to find Gray’s left eye swollen and bloodied. Alexander had fled. In March 2012, she pled no contest to domestic-battery charges.
Of course, assaulting her husband, fleeing from police, and discharging a firearm in the direction of two young children has not kept Alexander from becoming a symbol of the racism supposedly endemic in Florida’s criminal-justice system. At Alexander’s sentencing hearing, several people had to be escorted from the courtroom for interrupting the proceedings with songs decrying the perceived injustice, and immediately after the hearing Florida congresswoman Corinne Brown told local media, “Clearly there is institutional racism.” According to Brown, among others, that racism operates through Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. They tend to ignore that the Zimmerman defense never invoked that provision.
Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson took time to visit Alexander in prison, afterward condemning “a gross act of injustice.” Online petitions have gone up calling for a retrial (a judge has already denied a motion to that effect) and for Florida governor Rick Scott to pardon Alexander.
Alexander’s defenders have a case that her sentence is excessive. Her 20-year prison term is mandatory under Florida’s “10-20-Life” statute, which established a minimum 20-year sentence for discharging a firearm while committing a “forcible felony,” any felony that “involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual.” But it does not take a thorough knowledge of the law to recognize a difference between Alexander’s “assault” and more common instances of that particular crime. Take into account that Alexander had no prior convictions and was not a threat to the “public” (just to her husband), and some of the outrage is understandable. Cases like this bring the wisdom of mandatory minimum sentences into question and show how important it is that judges and prosecutors have recourse to more lenient sentencing.
Alas, leniency is not Angela Corey’s strong suit. But Florida’s best-known prosecutor has pointed out that Alexander rejected a plea deal that would have reduced her sentence to three years. Alexander preferred to go to trial — where it took jurors twelve minutes to return a guilty verdict.
Twelve minutes of jury deliberation suggests something besides “institutional racism,” particularly when the six-person jury, split evenly among men and women, included an African American man. It suggests strong evidence and an undeniable conclusion. Twenty years in prison is excessive, but the jury’s verdict was the right one.
Which, come to think of it, makes for one parallel with the Zimmerman trial after all.
— Ian Tuttle is an editorial intern at National Review.