How Stand Your Ground Laws Failed Marissa Alexander

Photo by Associated Press
The mother of two faced up to 60 years in prison for defending herself against an abuser

Marissa Alexander, the Florida woman who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-husband, was released from jail yesterday after a nearly five-year ordeal. In August of 2010, just nine days after giving birth to her daughter, Alexander, now 34, was assaulted and threatened by her estranged husband Rico Gray.  She went to her garage to get her legal firearm during the altercation, returned to the house, and fired what she called a “warning shot” at Gray that hit the wall.

After the confrontation, Alexander was arrested, charged and convicted on three counts of aggravated armed assault and sentenced to 20 years in prison under Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing law. The verdict was overturned, due to faulty jury instructions, but prosecutor Angela Corey, who failed to secure the conviction of George Zimmerman, pressed on with a new trial where Alexander faced even more time—up to 60 years—in prison.  Prosecutors argued that because Alexander had to exit the house to retrieve the gun from her car in the garage, she was no longer in any imminent danger and thus not afforded immunity under Florida’s Stand Your Ground defense.  Furthermore, Alexander’s warning shot hit the wall, as opposed to the ceiling, and prosecutors insisted that this put Gray and his children in physical danger.   

Related: Plea Deal Reached for Marissa Alexander in 'Stand Your Ground' Case

Alexander successfully appealed the decision and was granted a new trial. But a plea deal was reached this past November and the mother of three agreed to plead guilty to three counts of aggravated assault in exchange for three years in prison. Taking into account the 1,095 days that Alexander had already served behind bars since her arrest in 2010, plus an additional 65 days she’s served since November, the judge allowed her to be released yesterday, where she’ll spend two years under house arrest per the plea agreement. She’ll wear a GPS monitoring ankle bracelet for the duration of her sentence. 

Alexander’s case has gained national attention and scrutiny for the disparate treatment she received in not being protected under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which states that if a person reasonably believes they are in imminent danger, they are permitted to they themselves use deadly force in self defense.  George Zimmerman’s case helped propel Alexander’s situation to national headlines, because this was a clear example of state statutes being applied unequally to defendants who both initially claimed immunity under Stand Your Ground. Though Zimmerman’s defense team didn’t use Stand Your Ground to win him an acquittal, both Zimmerman and Alexander were prosecuted by Corey. The glaring differences: Alexander is a Black woman, a victim of domestic violence, and the only one who hadn’t injured or killed anyone when she discharged her weapon.

Related: Marissa Alexander Case Inspires Florida To Expand 'Stand Your Ground' Law

Though supporters of Stand Your Ground say the laws were developed to protect women like Marissa Alexander, her case suggests otherwise. And in some states, like South Carolina, which has its own Stand Your Ground statute, the law actually exempts domestic violence survivors from immunity from prosecution for self-defense against an abuser. Thus, a person could justifiably shoot and kill someone who entered their home in self-defense, but a battered woman would not be afforded the same immunity from prosecution if she were to shoot her abuser in self-defense.  The immunity in this case is intended to protect individuals who use force against outside threats, as opposed to an intimate partner or spouse.

Marissa Alexander’s case illuminated the point that Stand Your Ground laws do not apply equally to women, especially women of color. Advocates for domestic violence survivors, while pleased with Alexander’s release, will no doubt continue the push to amend Stand Your Ground to protect the women who need it most. 

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