20 Years for Standing Her Ground

A Florida woman faces prison after firing a warning shot to scare off an abusive husband.


"I got five baby mammas, and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one," Rico Gray confessed during a November 2010 deposition. "The way I was with women…they had to walk on eggshells around me." He recalled punching women in the face, shoving them, choking them, and tossing them out the door.

Yet somehow, after one of those women fired a warning shot into the ceiling of her Jacksonville, Florida, home to scare him away during yet another violent outburst, prosecutors managed to convince a jury that Gray was the victim. As a result, Marissa Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of three, faces 20 years in prison for standing her ground against an abusive husband.

Gray has been arrested twice for domestic battery, including an assault that sent Alexander to the hospital. In September 2009 Alexander obtained a protective order against Gray that was still in effect on August 1, 2010, when he flew into a jealous rage after discovering, while poking through her cellphone, that she had sent pictures of their newborn daughter to her first husband.

Alexander was in the master bathroom at the time, and Gray tried to force his way in. When she came out, he screamed and cursed at her while preventing her from leaving the bedroom. "I was like forcing her back with my body," reported Gray, who is seven inches taller than Alexander and outweighs her by 100 pounds.  

When Alexander managed to get by, she ran through the kitchen to the garage, where she says she realized she did not have the keys to her car, could not call for help because she had left her cellphone behind, and could not escape because the garage door was not working. Instead she grabbed her handgun from her car and headed back through the kitchen, where Gray confronted her again.

In his deposition Gray admitted he "had told her if she ever cheated on me I would kill her" and during the fight said, "If I can't have you, nobody can." He conceded he "was going towards her" when Alexander fired a single shot, high and to his right, that went through the kitchen wall and lodged in the ceiling of the living room. Finally he left, along with his two sons.

"The gun was never pointed at me," Gray said. "She just didn't want me to put my hands on her anymore, so she did what she feel like she have to do to make sure she wouldn't get hurt." If his sons hadn't been in the house, Gray said, "I probably would have tried to take the gun from her," and "I probably would have put my hand on her."

But at the July 2011 hearing where Alexander argued that the charges against her should be dismissed because she had acted in self-defense, Gray—who immediately after the fight portrayed her as the aggressor, then said in his deposition three months later that he had lied out of anger—changed his story again, saying he had lied in his deposition to protect her. Circuit Judge Elizabeth Senterfitt rejected Alexander's motion to dismiss, saying she could have escaped through the front or back door instead of going to the garage.

Yet Florida's self-defense law says "a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat" if "he or she reasonably believes" it is necessary to prevent "imminent death or great bodily harm" or "the imminent commission of a forcible felony." In 1999, furthermore, the Florida Supreme Court ruled that a woman attacked by her husband in the home they share has no duty to flee.

On March 16, after deliberating for 12 minutes, a jury convicted Alexander on three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Although she injured no one, she faces a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence unless she can win a new trial.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter.