20 Years for Standing Her Ground Against a Violent Husband


Families Against Mandatory Minimums highlights a case that suggests Florida's "stand your ground" law has been applied unevenly, failing to protect people in situations very much like those envisioned by its supporters. Marissa Alexander faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years because she fired a gun into the ceiling of her Jacksonville home in 2010 to ward off an attack by an abusive husband against whom she had a protective order. A judge rejected her pretrial motion to dismiss the charges against her under the self-defense statute, saying she could have escaped the house instead of firing the warning shot. Last month a six-person jury convicted her on three counts of assault with a deadly weapon (one for her husband, Rico Gray, and one for each of his two sons, who were also present), thereby triggering the 20-year mandatory minimum.

Unlike George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin, Alexander's case actually involves the right to stand your ground—or, more precisely, the "castle doctrine," which says people have no duty to retreat when attacked in their homes. In 2005, when the Florida legislature eliminated the duty to retreat in public places, it also broadened the castle doctrine, creating a presumption that a person has "a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm" if he "knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred." It makes an exception to this presumption if "the person against whom the defensive force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the dwelling," but only when "there is not an injunction for protection from domestic violence or a written pretrial supervision order of no contact against that person," as there was in this case. Alexander's situation seems to be exactly the sort that was supposed to be covered by these provisions, which makes the dismissal of her pretrial motion, based on the premise that she could and should have retreated, all the more puzzling.

Loop 21, citing Alexander's lawyer, reports that the she "endured strangulation, beatings, and hospitalization, including an incident causing the premature birth of her youngest child….The abuse happened over the span of a few years, before Alexander decided to use deadly force in defense against her attacker." It adds:

Duval County court records show Gray's history of domestic battery dates back to 1994. A more recent battery incident on Gray's record resulted in Alexander's hospitalization. Gray has been arrested and received probation for the abuse.

In a deposition for the case against Alexander, Gray cops to having previously struck his wife and other women he's been romantically involved with.

"And the third incident [with Alexander] we was staying together and I pushed her back and she fell in the bathtub and hit her head and I—you know, by the time I ran downstairs and got in my car to leave, you know, that's the time I went to jail, the police picked me up down the street," Gray said in his deposition.

Like Zimmerman, Alexander held a carry permit. Unlike him, she did not injure or kill anyone, and the aggression against her is well documented. Yet she was arrested immediately, and she potentially faces a longer prison sentence. Zimmerman is charged with second-degree murder, which is punishable by a sentence up to life. But given the known facts of the case, he is more likely to be convicted of manslaughter (assuming he is convicted), which has a maximum penalty of 15 years. Notably, the same prosecutor who overcharged Zimmerman, Angela Corey, is the one who threw the book at Alexander.

There are two major issues here: whether Alexander's use of force was justified under Florida's law and whether, assuming it wasn't, a 20-year prison sentence is just punishment given the circumstances. The answer to the first question seems to be yes, and the answer to the second one is certainly no.

While the disparate treatment of Alexander (who is black) and Zimmerman (who is Hispanic) might suggest racial bias, FAMM notes another Florida case involving a white man, Orville Lee Wollard, who received a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence for firing a warning shot in his own home "to chase off a young man who had been abusing his teenage daughter." Wollard rejected a plea deal that involved five years of probation because he believed his actions were lawful. A jury disagreed, apparently because he was not allowed to testify about the assailant's history of violence against his daughter. The judge who imposed the sentence called it "clearly excessive" but said, "I am duty-bound to apply the law as it has been enacted by the legislature." 

In addition to FAMM, Al Sharpton and the Jacksonville chapter of the NAACP are championing Alexander's case. An interview with her is scheduled to air on CNN's Anderson Cooper 360° tonight. 

I discuss the application of Florida's law to Zimmerman in my column today.