Published May 19, 2012
TAMPA, Fla. – Marissa Alexander had never been arrested before she fired a bullet at a wall one day in 2010 to scare off her husband when she felt he was threatening her. Nobody got hurt, but this month a northeast Florida judge was bound by state law to sentence her to 20 years in prison.
Alexander, a 31-year-old mother of a toddler and 11-year-old twins, knew it was coming. She had claimed self-defense, tried to invoke Florida's "stand your ground" law and rejected plea deals that could have gotten her a much shorter sentence. A jury found her guilty as charged: aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Because she fired a gun while committing a felony, Florida's mandatory-minimum gun law dictated the 20-year sentence.
Her case in Jacksonville has drawn a fresh round of criticism aimed at mandatory-minimum sentencing laws. The local NAACP chapter and the district's African-American congresswoman say blacks more often are incarcerated for long periods because of overzealous prosecutors and judges bound by the wrong-headed statute. Alexander is black.
It also has added fuel to the controversy over Florida's "stand your ground" law, which the judge would not allow Alexander to invoke. State Attorney Angela Corey, who also is overseeing the prosecution of shooter George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, stands by the handling of Alexander's case. Corey says she believes Alexander aimed the gun at the man and his two sons, and the bullet she fired could have ricocheted and hit any of them.
At the May 11 sentencing, Alexander's relatives begged Circuit Judge James Daniel for leniency but he said the decision was "out of my hands."
"The Legislature has not given me the discretion to do what the family and many others have asked me to do," he said.
The state's "10-20-life" law was implemented in 1999 and credited with helping to lower the violent crime rate. Anyone who shows a gun in the commission of certain felonies gets an automatic 10 years in prison. Fire the gun, and it's an automatic 20 years. Shoot and wound someone, and it's 25 years to life.
Critics say Alexander's case underscores the unfair sentences that can result when laws strip judges of discretion. About two-thirds of the states have mandatory-minimum sentencing laws, mostly for drug crimes, according to a website for the Families Against Mandatory Minimums advocacy group.
"We're not saying she's not guilty of a crime, we're not saying that she doesn't deserve some sort of sanction by the court," said Greg Newburn, Florida director for the group. Rather, he said, the judge should have the authority to decide an appropriate sanction after hearing all the unique circumstances of the case.
U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown, D-Jacksonville, has been an advocate for Alexander. Brown was present at the sentencing, where she and Corey had a brief, terse exchange afterward as sign-toting supporters rallied outside the courthouse.
"The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today," Brown said afterward. "One is that if women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the 'Stand Your Ground Law' will not apply to them. ... The second message is that if you are black, the system will treat you differently."
Victor Crist was a Republican state legislator who crafted the "10-20-life" bill enacted in 1999 in Gov. Jeb Bush's first term. He said Alexander's sentence — if she truly did fire a warning shot and wasn't trying to kill her husband — is not what lawmakers wanted.
"We were trying to get at the thug who was robbing a liquor store who had a gun in his possession or pulled out the gun and threatened someone or shot someone during the commission of the crime," said Crist, who served in the state House and Senate for 18 years before being elected Hillsborough County commissioner.
On Aug. 1, 2010, Alexander was working for a payroll software company. She was estranged from her husband, Rico Gray, and had a restraining order against him, even though they'd had a baby together just nine days before. Thinking he was gone, she went to their former home to retrieve the rest of her clothes, family members said.
An argument ensued, and Alexander said she feared for her life when she went out to her vehicle and retrieved the gun she legally owned. She came back inside and ended up firing a shot into the wall, which ricocheted into the ceiling.
Gray testified that he saw Alexander point the gun at him and looked away before she fired the shot. He claims she was the aggressor, and he had begged her to put away the weapon.
A judge threw out Alexander's "stand your ground" self-defense claim, noting that she could have run out of the house to escape her husband but instead got the gun and went back inside. Alexander rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence and chose to go to trial. A jury deliberated 12 minutes before convicting her.
"The irony of the 10-20-life law is the people who actually think they're innocent of the crime, they roll the dice and take their chances, and they get the really harsh prison sentences," Newburn said. "Whereas the people who think they are actually guilty of the crime take the plea deal and get out (of prison) well before. So it certainly isn't working the way it is intended."
Alexander was also charged with domestic battery four months after the shooting in another assault on Gray. She pleaded no contest and was sentenced to time served.
Her family says that doesn't erase the fact that a relatively law-abiding person — a woman with a master's degree — who was making positive contributions to society will endure prison for two decades over a single violation in which no one was hurt.
"She had a restraining order against him. Now Marissa is incarcerated and he's not," said her father, Raoul Jenkins. "I'm wrestling with that in my mind and trying to determine how the system worked that detail out. It's really frustrating."
Newburn says Alexander's case is not an isolated incident, and that people ensnared by mandatory-minimum laws cross racial barriers.
In central Florida, a white man named Orville Lee Wollard is nearly two years into a 20-year sentence for firing his gun inside his house to scare his daughter's boyfriend. Prosecutors contended that Wollard was shooting at the young man and missed.
He rejected a plea deal that offered probation but no prison time. Like Alexander, he took his chances at trial and was convicted of aggravated assault with a firearm. Circuit Judge Donald Jacobsen said he was "duty bound" by the 10-20-life law to impose the harsh sentence.
"I would say that, if it wasn't for the minimum mandatory aspect of this, I would use my discretion and impose some separate sentence, having taken into consideration the circumstances of this event," Jacobsen said.
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