Recent announcements have brought Marissa Alexander, and the controversial Stand Your Ground laws, back into the news. In 2012, the domestic violence survivor was convicted with aggravated assault for firing a shot at the ceiling during an attack by her estranged husband. She received the mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. Though occurring before Trayvon Martin’s killing, Ms. Alexander’s case became especially prominent after George Zimmerman’s trial for that case, and in conjunction with the ongoing case against Michael Dunn, who is accused of killing the black teenager, Jordan Davis. Alexander’s case is often used in larger conversation about Florida’s the inconsistent application of Stand Your Ground or Shoot First laws.
Alexander’s 2012 conviction and 2013 appeal, paint a picture of regular domestic violence stoking Alexander’s fear for her own life and prompting her stand her ground in the face of attack by her estranged husband, Rico Gray. As has been widely reported, rather than being granted immunity under the Stand Your Ground law, Alexander was prosecuted to the fullest.
Florida’s “stand your ground” states that a person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.
The provision seems ideally suited to protect women like Alexander who face violence at the hands of others while in their own homes. In 2010, Alexander and Gray got into an argument and Gray became violent while questioning her fidelity and the paternity of her newborn baby. As the fight escalated, Alexander locked herself in the bathroom for protection, though Gray broke through, and grabbed Alexander by the neck, asking when she had last slept with her ex-husband. After struggling for what she described as “an eternity,” Alexander rushed from the bathroom to the garage to try and leave but, unable to open the garage door, she instead retrieved a gun from the car. When she re-entered the house with the gun at her side, Gray charged at her in a rage, saying “Bitch I’ll kill you.”
As is written in Alexander's appeal, “Startled, she raised the gun into the air and fired. Mr. Gray ran. According to [Alexander], she was forced to fire the gun in the air as a warning shot because it was ‘the lesser of two evils.”
It is clear from the testimony of Alexander, from her family members, from Gray’s family members and ex-girlfriends, and from Rico Gray himself that Alexander had suffered a year and a half of domestic violence at his hands. Despite the violent conditions out of which Alexander’s gunshot fired, prosecutor Angela Corey decided to prosecute her to the fullest because she believed Alexander was not in fear when she fired.
Which is to say that Corey does not believe that Alexander acted in self-defense.
Self-defense is critical to Stand Your Ground laws. Stand Your Ground laws are a fairly new phenomenon, though some state self defense laws have historically had provisions discussing the duty to retreat into one’s home or away from an attacker in a public place. For example, “castle doctrine” allows individuals to use reasonable force to protect themselves inside their homes from an intruder. In the 1980s, a few states—Florida being one—went beyond these existing protections to allow a person to use deadly force to protect one’s home. Despite being attacked in her own home and in fear for her own life, her trial judge determined that her circumstance did not grant her immunity under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. She was ultimately convicted of aggravated assault.
However, and importantly, her case was successfully appealed in 2013 and remanded for a new trial because jury instructions incorrectly shifted the burden of proof from the prosecution to the defense. That is, Alexander’s appeal argues the jury was improperly instructed to attend to whether or not Alexander effectively established that Gray was committing or was about to commit aggravated battery when she fired the gun—not whether or not she had acted in self defense when she fired the gun. She won her appeal, but the appellate court unfortunately affirmed the trial court’s decision to deny Ms. Alexander immunity under Stand Your Ground. Her new trial date is set for July 28, 2014.
In Illinois, our self defense laws do not use the phrase “stand your ground,” but they are similar in that they do not impose a duty to retreat, and they provide immunity in some circumstances of self defense. In 1953, the Illinois Supreme Court said they had “repeatedly held” that someone “put in apparent danger of his life or of great bodily harm need not attempt to escape but may repel force with force, even to the taking of an assailant's life, if necessary or apparently so, to prevent bodily harm.” As the first concealed carry permits were distributed in Illinois on March 1st, there will undoubtedly be heightened scrutiny over Illinois’s self defense laws. As more cases (and tragedies) like those of Marissa Alexander, George Zimmerman, and Michael Dunn surface, Stand Your Ground laws will continue to test how we understand self-defense, victimhood, and prosecutorial discretion. Hopefully, any and all self-defense cases that arise in Illinois will be prosecuted with more careful consideration than what appears to be happening in Alexander’s case.
On March 1, 2014, Angela Corey announced that she planned to aim for consecutive, rather than concurrent sentences for Ms. Alexander. This would be a sentence of 60 years rather than 20 years—an effective life sentence for the 33 year old Alexander. It’s important to note this sentence would not even be possible had Marissa Alexander been afforded the protection of the Florida Stand Your Ground.
This aggressive prosecution not raises more questions about the effectiveness of Stand Your Ground laws, but should force us to re-think prosecutorial discretion and mandatory minimum sentencing—to say nothing of the ways in which women of color are differently treated in the eyes of the law compared to, say, George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn (two men who Corey also prosecuted).
When the adult men George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn were afraid of black teenagers, they needed only fire their guns and kill them to feel safer and receive protection under the law. When Marissa Alexander and CeCe McDonald defended themselves from immanant violence at the hands of men, they received stringent prison sentences. To what ends are the long-term effects of domestic abuse minimized in the eyes of the law? To what extent does a victim of domestic abuse need to present overt physical and emotional damage in order to be considered fending for one’s own life in the face of one’s attacker? How might Stand Your Ground laws privilege men’s fears, but not the fears of women or transpeople?