UPDATE: A judge denied Marissa Alexander a new trial Thursday morning for the 2010 shooting, The Florida-Times Union reports.
EARLIER: It took nearly a year’s worth of violent physical abuse before Marissa Alexander decided to stand her ground against her husband.
On Aug. 1, 2010, her husband cornered her in their Jacksonville, Fla., home. Alexander said she ran to the garage to escape, but the garage door was jammed, so Alexander grabbed a pistol. Her husband, Rico Gray, 36, saw the gun and threatened to kill her, Alexander would later say in court documents.
Fearing for her life, she raised the pistol above her head and squeezed the trigger, the crackle of gunfire pelting the kitchen ceiling.
While the shooting may have gotten Alexander out of one jam, it put her in another: She has been in a Florida jail since 2010 awaiting a mandatory sentence of 20 years in prison for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
The 31-year-old mother of three has said that she believes she had a legal right to protect herself that day under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which gives citizens expanded rights to use force when threatened with bodily harm. But moments after the shooting, Gray ran outside and called police alleging that Alexander shot at him and his two sons. Alexander was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Gray later changed his story about the shooting. During a court hearing to determine whether or not Alexander could be protected under the Stand Your Ground Law, Gray said he'd lied during his earlier deposition and that he "begged and pleaded for my life when she had the gun."
A judge rejected Alexander’s Stand Your Ground defense, saying that she could have escaped her attacker "through the front or back door," court records say. The State Attorney’s Office offered her a plea deal that would have sent her to prison for a few years, but she rejected it, hoping to convince a jury that she was defending herself.
It took a jury 12 minutes to find her guilty.
Under the state’s mandatory sentencing guidelines, Alexander faces a 20-year prison sentence with no chance of early release. She could be sentenced as early as next week, but at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, Alexander will be in court for a pre-sentencing hearing, where her attorneys will ask for a new trial.
"This is my life I'm fighting for," Alexander said in an interview with CNN. "If you do everything to get on the right side of the law, and it is a law that does not apply to you, where do you go from there?"
The death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, about two hours south of Jacksonville in Sanford, has sparked new interest in the state’s Stand Your Ground law. Martin was shot and killed in late February by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who claimed that he shot Martin in self-defense. The police questioned Zimmerman the night of the shooting but let him go hours later, saying that they did not have enough evidence to counter his self-defense claims. The police chief at the time cited a citizen’s right to defend himself or herself under state law.
Zimmerman has since been charged with second-degree murder in Martin’s killing. The State Attorney’s Office in Jacksonville responsible for the Alexander case is led by Angela Corey, the special prosecutor leading the prosecution against Zimmerman. Her office could not be reached for comment.
Alexander’s family and supporters said hers is a clear case of self-defense, given Gray’s violent history of abuse and the circumstances surrounding the incident. What exacerbates Alexander’s case is Florida’s 10-20-Life statutes, they say.
In Florida, anyone who pulls a gun during a crime receives a mandatory 10-year sentence. Firing a gun during the commission of a crime equals a mandatory 20-year sentence. Anyone convicted of shooting and killing another person during a crime is sentenced to 25 to life in prison.
Alexander, who did not have a criminal record before the shooting, was convicted of felony assault with a gun.
“Florida has some of the more draconian mandatory minimum laws in the country,” said Greg Newburn, a spokesman for Families Against Minimum Mandates, an organization that has worked to dismantle the state’s mandatory sentencing laws. “It’s the sentence that’s really the problem in this case. You have a person who believes that she is protecting herself and believes she is covered by state law. But the way the law is written, it doesn’t provide for any kind of distinction for anyone that acts out of malice and someone who act out of fear.”
Helena Jenkins, 26, Alexander’s younger sister, said the law that should have protected her has failed her. “I feel like she is being punished for doing the right thing,” Jenkins said. “I feel the law wasn’t upheld from the beginning, it was like, no one looked at it as what it really was.”
The local NAACP and women’s advocacy groups have rallied around Alexander’s case to urge court officials to grant her a new trial.
“The community is outraged about it, based on the history of her husband and this being domestic violence,” said Isaiah Rumlin, head of the Jacksonville branch of the NAACP. “We have been working with her lawyer, working with the State Attorney’s Office trying to urge them to just look at this thing on the merits.”
Angela M. Nixon, a spokesperson for Florida New Majority, an organization that works to empower women and underserved communities, said the Alexander case exemplifies how ill-equipped the justice system is to protect the most vulnerable.
“A woman’s right to protect herself shouldn’t be on trial,” Nixon said. “A woman’s right to safety, to protect herself from harm's way, from violence, from being killed should not be on trial.”
Alexander had given birth just nine days before the 2010 shooting. The couple had been married three months, but since early in their relationship, Gray had choked, pushed and beaten her, Alexander’s family told HuffPost. Gray was arrested a year prior to the shooting incident for an attack that put Alexander in the hospital.
In a deposition after the incident, Gray said he had “laid hands” on nearly every girlfriend that he’s had.
That day in August, Gray became enraged when he went through Alexander’s cell phone and found messages to her ex-husband, who remained her close friend. "I told her if she ever cheated on me, I would kill her," Gray said in a deposition.
"If my kids weren't there, I knew I probably would have tried to take the gun from her," he said of the shooting incident. "If my kids wouldn't have been there, I probably would have put my hand on her."
"I got five baby-mamas and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one."
Gray and Alexander have joint custody of their now 2-year-old daughter, but Jenkins said Gray doesn’t allow their side of the family to see her.
Alexander’s ex-husband, Lincoln Alexander, said he and her family will keep fighting the case until the very end. “I know she’s innocent,” he said. “I’m not going to give up on her.”
If Alexander isn’t granted a new trial, she could be sentenced as early as next week. Her family and friends are hoping for the best, but preparing for the reality that Alexander could spend then next two decades behind bars.
“It hurts,” said Helena Jenkins, Alexander’s sister. “It’s like, having a piece of you torn away every time I think about her. My stomach drops just knowing what kind of person she is and what she’s going through.”
Jenkins said Alexander is her inspiration and her hero, having graduated with her bachelor’s degree in computer network engineering and later her MBA. But, when it came to love and loving Gray, she described her sister as an “addict.”
She said didn’t know Alexander was being abused until Gray put her in the hospital in 2009. “She tried to stick through it with him and she hoped that something different would turn about, but it ended so tragically for Marissa,” Jenkins said.
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