BLACK VOICES
02/13/2017 03:00 pm ET

Marissa Alexander Won't Let Her Long National Nightmare Define Her

Finally released from house arrest, the domestic violence survivor said she feels like she can breathe once more.

Free Marissa
Marissa Alexander, a domestic violence survivor who was incarcerated for firing what she called a "warning shot" near her estranged husband, is now free.

The indignities of house arrest were small but persistent.

If Marissa Alexander ran out of milk, she couldn’t dash to the grocery store to get more. She went without. If one of her kids needed a ride to a sleepover, she couldn’t take them.

The ankle bracelet clamped to her left leg was a constant reminder of the ordeal that began over six years ago, when she says she picked up a gun to ward off a terrifying attack by her abusive husband.

At first, she was embarrassed by the GPS monitor, and hid it under long pants even during the sweltering summer days in Jacksonville, Florida. Later, she grew used to it.

On Jan. 27, when the bracelet was cut off, a physical and mental weight was lifted, she said. She was finally free.

“It’s fully liberating,” Alexander said in a phone interview with The Huffington Post last week, exhaling slowly. “I feel like I can live.”

Alexander was thrust into the national spotlight in 2012 after she was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a single warning shot in the vicinity of her estranged husband, Rico Gray, during an altercation.

The incident occurred in 2010. According to Alexander’s telling of the story, she was visiting with Gray nine days after giving birth to their daughter, when he saw texts on her phone that made him jealous. She said he flew into a rage, and attacked and threatened to kill her. She retrieved her gun and fired one shot to protect herself, she said.

No one was injured in the shooting, but Alexander was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, as two of Gray’s children were also in the home.

She was 31, a mom of three, and had no criminal history. Gray had been arrested twice before for domestic violence, and was subject to a restraining order barring him from seeing Alexander at the time of the shooting. In a sworn deposition, he admitted that he abused Alexander, and said she never pointed the gun at him.

“I got five baby mamas and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one,” he told investigators. “The way I was with women, they was like they had to walk on eggshells around me.” He later recanted that deposition, claiming he said those things to keep Alexander out of prison.

But despite Alexander’s insistence that she was in fear for her life, a judge rejected her effort to invoke Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which allows people to use deadly force if they are in danger. A jury convicted her after deliberating for 12 minutes. Under Florida’s strict laws involving gun violence, she was sentenced to a mandatory minimum prison term of 20 years.

Her case stood in stark contrast to another Florida case involving self-defense. George Zimmerman, who fatally shot unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin, was acquitted after a jury concluded he was afraid for his life.

Critics of “stand your ground” laws said the divergent outcomes were proof of racial bias, and Alexander emerged as a symbol of miscarriage of justice for black women who act in self-defense.

Her conviction was eventually overturned because of an error in jury instructions. In 2014, she reached a plea deal. She ultimately served three years in prison and two years on home detention, which ended last month.

Alexander’s first few days of freedom were spent with her family, she said. She took her daughter out to breakfast at Cracker Barrel before school. She visited her sister’s new house and celebrated her pregnancy. A party was held in Alexander’s honor, where she was surrounded by friends, family and supporters.

Marissa Alexander
Marissa Alexander eats breakfast with her daughter Rihanna on her first day off house arrest. 

“I wanted to be with the people I loved the most, immediately,” she said.

She is surprisingly upbeat about all she has endured.

“I am obsessed with transformation,” she said. “I wanted to take this situation that was meant to stifle me, stagnate me, and separate me, and use it to benefit me the best way it can.”

While on house arrest, she wrote a book detailing her experiences, and exercised in a home gym she had installed. She also established a nonprofit, called the Marissa Alexander Justice Project, which will provide support to domestic violence survivors who are involved in the criminal justice system.

“My life was literally devastated and turned upside down by one shot, a 12-minute verdict, and a 20-year sentence,” she said. “It was important to me that this was not in vain, that I came out of this experience stronger.”

She wants to help other women who are in the same position that she was. While she was in prison, she learned about many women who were being punished for acts taken to protect themselves, she said.

“I am a servant at heart,” she said. “There is joy for me to be able to give back in this way.”  

She also wants to help change attitudes on domestic violence. There’s still a lot of judgment of women who don’t leave abusers, she said.

“People ask, why did you stay?” she said. “Nobody ever said, you were the victim and one of the choices you had was to preserve your life, and that’s OK. I did the best that I could do that day. I preserved my life. I made a situation that could have been fatal not fatal, and I still was penalized.”

For women who relate to her story, her message is to persevere.

“My whole thing is to not be bitter, but to be better,” she said. “Your past does not determine the entire course of your life unless you allow it to.”

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Melissa Jeltsen covers domestic violence and other issues related to women’s health, safety and security. Tips? Feedback? Send an email or follow her on Twitter.

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