Florida

No, Marissa Alexander’s Conviction Was Not a “Reverse Trayvon Martin” Case in Florida

Media
George Zimmerman, Marissa Alexander

In the wake of George Zimmerman’s acquittal on second-degree murder and manslaughter charges, many media outlets have focused their attention on Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman in Florida who unsuccessfully asserted a so-called “Stand Your Ground” defense in 2011 and is now serving a prison sentence of 20 years on multiple accounts of aggravated assault with a firearm. Although those media outlets, and many local politicians like U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), have suggested that Marissa Alexander got a raw deal compared to George Zimmerman, who was acquitted, the actual facts in the two cases bear little resemblance.

At first glance, the two cases share many superficial similarities. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, claimed self-defense after fatally shooting a young African-American man who had punched him several times. After firing what she says was a warning shot near the head of her abusive husband, Alexander claimed she was only trying to protect herself from another attack. In both cases, controversial state prosecutor Angela Corey led the charge against the gun owners who claimed self defense. And in both cases, professional race hustlers rushed to television cameras to claim that race was a primary factor preventing justice from being served.

“Why did Marissa Alexander get a 20-year sentence despite invoking ‘Stand Your Ground’?” MSNBC asked shortly after the Zimmerman verdict of not guilty was announced..

“For Black People and Women, Very Little Ground Left to Stand On,” a Gawker headline blared on Sunday afternoon.

“When Marissa Alexander was charged with firing a gun in front of her allegedly abusive husband, she tried to use Florida’s Stand Your Ground law as a defense — just like George Zimmerman,” BuzzFeed wrote in 2012. “But for her it didn’t work. Now some are asking if her case is a ‘reverse Trayvon’ situation.”

Screenshot of an MSNBC story comparing the Zimmerman and Alexander cases (July 14, 2013)

Screenshot of an MSNBC story comparing the Zimmerman and Alexander cases (July 14, 2013)

A closer examination of the facts in Marissa Alexander’s case, however, reveals why a judge rejected Alexander’s pre-trial “Stand Your Ground” defense — a specific defense under Florida law that George Zimmerman never asserted — and why a jury eventually convicted her on multiple charges, resulting in a mandatory prison sentence of at least 20 years. If Alexander’s case suggests a failure of the legal system to mete out appropriate justice, then the problem lies with Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, not with the state’s self-defense laws.

After only 12 minutes of deliberation, a jury convicted Alexander on all three counts of aggravated assault.

FACTS OF THE ALEXANDER CASE

According to court documents, on July 31, 2010, Alexander left her newborn child in the hospital days after giving birth to visit the home of Rico Gray, her husband. Although Gray and Alexander had just been married in May of 2010, Alexander had not lived in Gray’s home for the two months prior to the shooting. When Alexander arrived at the home, Gray was not there. She parked her car in the garage, spent the night in the home, but did not see Gray until he returned home the next morning with his two sons.

When Gray returned, the family ate breakfast together without incident. The trouble began when Alexander gave her phone to Gray so he could see pictures of their newborn, who was still in the hospital. After giving the phone to Gray, Alexander went to use the bathroom in the home’s master bedroom. While looking at the pictures, Gray noticed text messages between Alexander and her ex-husband, Lincoln Alexander, which prompted Gray to confront Alexander about whether the baby was his or Lincoln Alexander’s.

An argument then ensued between Gray and Alexander, and Gray initially prevented Alexander from leaving the bathroom during the altercation. Alexander eventually managed to get around Gray to exit the bathroom.

Alexander’s actions following that moment are what differentiate her case from that of George Zimmerman.

After Alexander exited the bathroom and re-entered the master bedroom, Gray left the bedroom and headed to the living room where his sons were located. At that point, Alexander left the master bedroom, passing Gray, his two children, and the unobstructed front and back doors of the house on her way to the garage. Once in the garage, she retrieved a handgun from her vehicle’s glove box and then went back into the kitchen, where she “pointed it in the direction of all three [v]ictims.” Although Gray put his hands in the air, Alexander fired the gun, “nearly missing [Gray’s] head” and sending a bullet “through the kitchen wall and into the ceiling in the living room.”

Gray and his sons fled the home and immediately called 911. Alexander stayed in the home and never called 911.

Many of Alexander’s defenders correctly note that Gray had a long history of abusing Alexander and multiple other women. He had previously been charged with domestic battery on at least three separate occasions, including charges in 1994, 2006, and 2009. The 2009 incident against Alexander sent her to the hospital with head injuries after he shoved her into a bathtub.

Court Record of Gray's 2009 Domestic Battery Arrest

Court Record of Gray’s 2009 Domestic Battery Arrest

Alexander’s defenders also point to Gray’s eventual deposition as proof of Alexander’s claim of self defense. In that deposition, Gray said he had all but threatened to kill Alexander, that he knew she could not leave the home through the garage because it was broken, and that she never pointed the gun at him or his children. The problems with Gray’s testimony during his deposition, however, are two-fold.

PROBLEMS WITH RICO GRAY’S DEPOSITION

First, his deposition severely conflicted with the account that he originally gave police. Second, and more important, after swearing to the court that she would have no contact with Gray, Alexander continued to have contact with him. In her order dismissing Alexander’s request to avoid a trial entirely based on the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law, Judge Elizabeth A. Senterfitt noted that Alexander and Gray “discussed what [Gray] should say during [his] deposition” on November 22, 2010.

Gray later admitted to lying in his deposition to protect Alexander.

“Gray said he lied during his deposition after conspiring with his wife in an effort to protect her,” CNN wrote in 2012 after Alexander was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison. “At the hearing [on Alexander’s motion for a retrial], [Gray] denied threatening to kill his wife, adding, ‘I begged and pleaded for my life when she had the gun.'”

ALEXANDER’S DOMESTIC BATTERY ARREST MONTHS AFTER THE SHOOTING

Further complicating matters for Alexander, she was arrested for domestic battery against Gray on December 30, 2010, while she was out on bail and still awaiting trial on the aggravated assault charges stemming from the August incident.

“The victim [Gray] stated that his estranged wife [Alexander] had come to his residence to drop off their child,” the incident report prepared by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office noted. “[Gray] stated that an argument ensued when he would not allow her to stay overnight at his residence.” The police report noted that Gray’s left eye appeared swollen and bloodied. Alexander fled the scene before police arrived.

When the responding officer met with Alexander approximately an hour after the incident, she initially claimed that “she did not know what this was about and that she had an alibi.” Throughout the course of her conversation with the officer, Alexander changed her story and eventually claimed that while she had been at Gray’s house, he had attacked her first with his fists after she wouldn’t stay for the night. The officer wrote that Alexander had “no visible injuries.”

Alexander was arrested and bond was revoked on her prior charges of aggravated assault against Gray and his children. She entered a plea of no contest to the domestic battery charges on March 27, 2012.

Marissa Alexander's December 2010 Arrest Report

Marissa Alexander’s December 2010 Arrest Report

Unlike the Zimmerman case, in which he could clearly demonstrate a reasonable fear that his life had been in danger based on the multiple bruises and lacerations on his head and face, Alexander had no visible injuries. While Florida law requires only a reasonable fear of severe bodily harm rather than proof of actual physical harm, Alexander’s actions immediately before and after she discharged her firearm call into question her claim that she had no choice but to fire at Gray.

ALEXANDER’S DUBIOUS CLAIM OF SELF-DEFENSE

First, although she had ample opportunity to exercise non-lethal options when she claimed to believe her life was at risk — exiting through the front door, back door, or garage — Alexander chose to remain in the home. She later claimed that the garage door was broken, eliminating her ability to leave when she initially entered the garage, but officers found no evidence to suggest that it was not working.

Second, Alexander’s claim that she fired only a warning shot, as opposed to firing at Gray and merely missing, also rings somewhat hollow. Her claim that she fired a warning shot, instead of a shot at center mass to stop the aggressor’s attack, suggests that she did not believe that deadly force was actually necessary.

Third, the fact that Alexander never called the police after the incident also suggests that she did not reasonably fear for her life. A victim of a near fatal attack would almost certainly alert authorities so that they might apprehend the attacker.

Fourth, the fact that Alexander voluntarily returned to Gray’s home repeatedly after the incident — against explicit court orders which Alexander promised to obey — also suggests that she may not have actually feared for her life when she fired at Gray.

Fifth, and finally, Alexander’s behavior before and after her arrest in December of 2010 — while she was still awaiting trial for the previous incident — also calls into question whether she actually believed the use of deadly force was necessary to defend herself from Gray in August of 2010. Alexander never called police (in both the August and December encounters, it was Gray or his children who contacted the police) and initially lied about even being present at Gray’s home.

Given Alexander’s behavior and interactions with Gray in the months following her initial arrest, it is not difficult to see why both a judge and a jury may have been skeptical of her claim that the use of deadly force was reasonable and that no other options were available.

But the facts surrounding the Zimmerman and Alexander incidents are not the only differences in the two cases. Even though numerous media outlets have suggested that Alexander received unfair treatment under “Stand Your Ground” compared to Zimmerman, Zimmerman never actually claimed a defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. This incorrect comparison almost certainly comes from a misunderstanding of what the Florida law actually does.

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN NEVER SOUGHT IMMUNITY UNDER “STAND YOUR GROUND”

The law does not, as many have claimed, give individuals an unassailable right to shoot first or an automatic “Get Out of Jail Free” card. Instead, it is something of an extension of what’s known as the Castle Doctrine, which gives individuals in many states the right to use deadly force in their homes, cars, or places of business if they reasonably believe it is the only way to protect themselves or others from serious bodily harm or death. In most states, “Stand Your Ground” laws merely extend that right to public places in which individuals have a lawful right to be. In other words, the law gives people the right to defend themselves or others with deadly force if they have no other non-lethal options available, as opposed to requiring what is often referred to as a “duty to retreat.”

“The Zimmerman case was never a ‘Stand Your Ground’ case,” self-defense attorney and author Andrew Branca told Media Trackers. “If retreat is not possible — if there is no reasonably safe avenue of retreat — then no ‘duty to retreat’ exists.”

“‘Stand Your Ground’ was simply irrelevant” in the Zimmerman case, Branca concluded.

The controversial Florida law also gives individuals involved in a deadly shooting the opportunity to have charges dismissed, assuming they were ever brought, and full civil and criminal immunity granted by a judge before a trial even begins. It was this right to an immunity hearing that Alexander exercised. In contrast, Zimmerman chose to forgo that immunity hearing in favor of a full criminal trial.

The reason is that the rules for for the hearing are quite different — and more difficult for the defendant — than those of a criminal standard trial where guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In a standard criminal trial, the defendant must be found “not guilty” if jurors have a reasonable doubt as to his guilt. Innocence does not need to be proven; all reasonable doubt must be eliminated to justify a conviction. A “Stand Your Ground” hearing, however, requires defendants to affirmatively prove to a judge, based on a “preponderance of evidence,” that they acted in self defense. In laymen’s terms, the term “preponderance of evidence” generally means “more likely than not.”

In choosing to forgo a “Stand Your Grand” immunity hearing, Zimmerman’s attorneys likely believed that Zimmerman had a better chance if the prosecution had to prove  guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury of his peers than if Zimmerman had to prove his innocence to a single judge.

FLORIDA’S HARSH MANDATORY MINIMUM SENTENCING REQUIREMENTS

If anything, Alexander’s case is an indictment of Florida’s mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, not its self-defense laws. State prosecutors initially offered Alexander a plea deal of three years in prison. She rejected the deal. Upon conviction, she was sentenced to a mandatory minimum of 20 years in prison. Under Florida law, often referred to as “10-20-Life” for its tiered minimum sentencing requirements, any person convicted of aggravated assault combined with the discharge of a deadly weapon “shall be sentenced to a minimum term of imprisonment of 20 years.”

In Alexander’s case, she might have received a lesser sentence under Florida law if she had killed Gray and been convicted of manslaughter rather than shooting at him and missing.

“The ’10-20-Life’ statutes exclude manslaughter from any minimum sentencing requirements,” a Florida prosecutor told the Florida Times-Union in 2012. “That means if Alexander had actually killed her husband or one of his sons and been found guilty of manslaughter, she could have instead gotten as little as time served,” the Florida paper noted.

Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have been roundly criticized for removing the discretion of judges to set sentences according to the specific circumstances of each case. Critics say the laws neuter the ability of judges to set appropriate sentences, while empowering government attorneys to act as both prosecutors and judges.

Florida has some of the harshest mandatory sentencing requirements in the country. In Bushnell, Florida, for example, a 37-year-old man with no criminal history who was addicted to pain medication was sentenced to a minimum of 25 years in prison for possessing at least 28 grams of oxycodone. The judge in the case was even appalled by the sentence.

“I have to express my deep concern about this particular situation,” Judge Mark Speiser said. “This punishment does not fit the crime.”

While it may be completely unjust for a domestic abuse victim who did not actually injure anyone to spend two decades in prison, Alexander’s predicament is completely unrelated to that of George Zimmerman. The facts of the two cases could not be more different. Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury of his peers, while Alexander was convicted after only 12 minutes of jury deliberation. Media commentators should familiarize themselves with the facts and laws specific to each case before attempting to conflate the two to gin up ratings or readership.