Where Was ‘Stand Your Ground’ for Marissa Alexander?

A Florida woman protecting herself from her abusive husband finds that the controversial law doesn't always apply

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Marissa Alexander in an undated photo

The story reads like a Kafkaesque nightmare, where the law seems to turn its back on someone in a way that would make Josef K. from The Trial say, Damn, I thought I had it bad. Marissa Alexander was a 31-year-old, 5-ft. 2-in. mother of three, her baby just 9 days old, living in Jacksonville, Fla., a “Stand your ground” state. Her 36-year-old husband Rico Gray was arrested in 2009 for attacking her and sending her to the hospital, after which she got a restraining order against him. In a 2010 deposition, Gray said, “We was staying together and I pushed her back and she fell in the bathtub and hit her head and that’s the time I went to jail.” In the same deposition, he admits that this was not his first incident of domestic violence against women, saying, “I got five baby mamas and I put my hand on every last one of them except one. The way I was with women, they was like they had to walk on eggshells around me. You know they never knew what I was thinking or what I might do. Hit them, push them.” He also admits that he and Alexander had “four or five” episodes of domestic violence leading up the August 2010 incident that landed Alexander in prison facing a 20-year sentence.

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On Aug. 1, 2010, Alexander and Gray began to fight in the home where Alexander lived. Given Gray’s history, it’s predictable that Alexander was scared. She described the fight through her ex-husband and spokesperson Lincoln Alexander:

[Gray] assaulted me, shoving, strangling and holding me against my will, preventing me from fleeing all while I begged for him to leave. After a minute or two of trying to escape, I was able to make it to the garage where my truck was parked, but in my haste to leave I realized my keys were missing. I tried to open the garage but there was a mechanical failure. I was unable to leave, trapped in the dark with no way out. For protection against further assault I retrieved my weapon; which is registered and I have a concealed weapon permit. Trapped, no phone, I entered back into my home to either leave through another exit or obtain my cell phone. He and my two stepsons were supposed to be exiting the house thru the front door, but he didn’t leave. Instead he came into the kitchen that leads to the garage and realized I was unable to leave. Instead of leaving thru the front door where his vehicle was parked outside of the garage, he came into the kitchen by himself. I was terrified from the first encounter and feared he came to do as he had threatened. The weapon was in my right hand down by my side and he yelled, “Bitch, I will kill you!” and charged toward me. In fear and desperate attempt, I lifted my weapon up, turned away and discharged a single shot in the wall up in the ceiling. As I stood my ground it prevented him from doing what he threatened and he ran out of the home. Outside of the home, he contacted the police and falsely reported that I shot at him and his sons. The police arrived and I was taken into custody.

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Gray’s deposition tells a similar story of the incident (although he has since then publicly provided a conflicting account). According to the deposition, Gray and Alexander were in their bedroom, and she was showing him pictures of their new baby on her cell phone. When she left the room, Gray began to scroll through Alexander’s texts and noticed that she had been texting her ex-husband, Lincoln. This, he said, sent him into a rage. He threatened to have her beaten up by friends. He blocked her with his body while she hit him. She went to their garage and retrieved a gun that she was licensed to have. Gray said, “I knew that she couldn’t leave out the garage because the garage door was locked … because we was having problems with the garage and it wouldn’t go up.” Gray said Marissa Alexander returned, holding the gun with her hand down and told him to leave. He refused. He said, “She shot in the air one time,” and then he decided to leave. “She knew the relationships I been in and I put my hand on her before. I honestly think 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, you know.” He continued by saying, “The gun was never actually pointed at me. When she raised the gun down and raised it up, you know, the gun was never pointed at me.”

After Marissa posted bond and agreed to have no contact with Gray, she was released from prison and, according to court documents, drove to Gray’s new home where she physically attacked him. She was arrested on new charges and her bond was revoked. Lincoln says Marissa went to Gray’s home to get his signature on health-insurance paperwork, without which they would lose coverage, and while at the home, she was assaulted (although these claims were unproved in court).

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Their story isn’t simple and clean. Lincoln told me that after Marissa filed for and received a restraining order against Gray in 2009, she learned she was pregnant and asked the court to amend the restraining order to remove the ban on her and Gray having contact, while maintaining the rest of the restraining order. This, Lincoln said, was because she wanted to be with Gray during her pregnancy. Why would she want a man who had beaten her in the past living with her again? This is why her defense had an expert on battered women testify at her trial — because domestic-violence victims often allow their abusers back into their lives. In May 2010 — while the restraining order was still in place — Marissa Alexander and Gray were married. Alexander gave birth to their baby in August 2010, but she didn’t stay in the marital home. For the last two months of her pregnancy, the motion to dismiss says that she lived with her mother, meaning that Alexander and Gray weren’t living in the same house when the incident occurred.

Alexander rejected a plea deal, went to trial and was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon with no intent to harm. It seems to make sense that a woman who was in a physical fight in her home with an admitted habitual domestic abuser against whom she has legal protection should be entitled to stand her ground. Alexander told officers that she feared for her life. The “Stand your ground” law says, “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.” That would seem to describe Alexander’s situation. Yet a judge rejected Alexander’s motion to invoke “Stand your ground” because she could have exited the home. What happened to having no duty to retreat? The judge wrote there was “insufficient evidence she reasonably believed that deadly force was needed,” and that Alexander’s behavior was “inconsistent with a person who is in genuine fear for his or her life.” She is currently in prison awaiting sentencing.

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In Florida, the mandatory minimum for firing a gun while committing a crime is 20 years. It seems Alexander has been abandoned by battered-spouse laws, mandatory minimums and “Stand your ground”, which is turning our country into a confusing maze of shooters, some protected, some not. “Stand your ground” laws are haphazardly applied, shielding some and abandoning others, inconsistent about whether or not people have a duty to retreat when they fear for their life. This is unconscionable. When laws are not uniformly applied, civilization is on the verge of breaking down.

Is Marissa Alexander a threat to society? Does the public benefit from her being in prison? Are we safer? Should a shot into the ceiling that hit no one and that was intended to help protect an embattled domestic-abuse victim who possessed the gun legally be punished with 20 years in prison? Should her children grow up without a mom? Is this the America you want to live in?

Meanwhile, there is one last sliver of hope left for Alexander: the court will soon hear arguments for a retrial.

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