“Trapped in the dark”: Marissa Alexander and how our twisted legal system re-victimizes domestic violence survivors

As Alexander argues her right to invoke "stand your ground" law today, here's how the odds are stacked against her

Topics: domestic violence, Violence Against Women, violence against women and girls, Marissa Alexander, Stand-Your-Ground, angela corey, Florida, self-defense, Guns, Gun Violence, Editor's Picks, , ,

"Trapped in the dark": Marissa Alexander and how our twisted legal system re-victimizes domestic violence survivorsMarissa Alexander (Credit: AP/Lincoln B. Alexander)

He 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.

 – Marissa Alexander

“Why does she stay? Why doesn’t she leave?” These are the questions one hears when talking about people, particularly women, in abusive relationships. These same questions become key points when survivors of abuse defend themselves after years of violence and trauma. These may also be some of the key questions Marissa Alexander will face on Friday as she argues her right to invoke Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

Alexander, a Florida mother of three, made headlines in 2012 when she was convicted of aggravated assault after firing a warning shot to stop her husband from attacking her. Alexander fired the shot into the ceiling, harming no one. She attempted to invoke Florida’s “stand your ground” law, but a pre-trial judge ruled that she could have escaped through the front or back doors of her own home. The prosecutor, Angela Corey, added Florida’s 10-20-Life sentencing enhancement, mandating a 20-year minimum sentence when a firearm is discharged. In September 2013, an appeals court reversed her conviction. Alexander’s trial is scheduled for July 28, 2014. Angela Corey is seeking consecutive sentences, meaning that Alexander faces 60 years in prison if convicted.

Alexander’s case is a stark example of how the legal system frequently revictimizes survivors of domestic violence, prosecuting and imprisoning them after failing to respond to their calls for help. The continued prosecution of Marissa Alexander highlights how the legal system frequently ignores experiences of domestic violence, instead  painting the abused person as the perpetrator and the abuser as the victim.  But Alexander’s case is no anomaly. Across the country, survivors of abuse face prosecution and long prison sentences, often after failed attempts to seek protection from the legal system. In New York, “Vanessa” was arrested after stabbing her abusive boyfriend while he was choking her. She was not read her rights although the district attorney questioned her at length and took a video statement. She did not see her lawyer until just before her trial, for which she waited five and a half years. She was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to 19 years in prison. She has spent the last 10 years behind bars.

Studies have shown that the majority of women behind bars have experienced childhood abuse or domestic violence. In New York state, for example, 90 percent of women incarcerated in Bedford Hills Correctional Facility have experienced physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Eighty-two percent report childhood histories of severe physical and/or sexual abuse. The New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision found that 67 percent of women sent to prison for killing someone close to them were abused by that person. In California, a prison study found that 93 percent of the women who had killed their significant others had been abused by them. Sixty-seven percent of those women reported that they had been attempting to protect themselves or their children.

Once behind bars, however, women have not remained silent. In 1989, women incarcerated in California for killing their abusers formed Convicted Women Against Abuse. Inspired by the successful mass clemency drive of women imprisoned for self-defense in Ohio, the group organized their own clemency campaign in the 1990s. They wrote to then-Gov. Pete Wilson asking him to consider commuting their sentences. Wilson responded that he would consider the letter as a request for clemency from the 34 women who had signed it. In the end, he granted clemency to three.

However, the women’s efforts drew the attention of outside advocates, who formed the group Free Battered Women (now a program of the California Coalition for Women Prisoners), which continues advocating for the release of survivors behind bars. The women’s efforts also drew the attention of filmmaker Olivia Klaus, who created “Sin by Silence,” a documentary following the lives and stories of Convicted Women Against Abuse. The documentary not only garnered wider attention around the intersections of domestic violence and incarceration, but also led to the introduction of the Sin by Silence bills, which allow abuse survivors whose expert testimony was limited at their trial to refile a writ of habeas corpus to allow expert testimony to weigh in on their defense; give survivors more time to receive legal representation by deleting the sunset date currently in statute; and provide incarcerated survivors a chance to present their evidence in an effective way during the parole process.

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed both bills into law in 2012. They took effect on Jan. 1, 2013. Several months later, in June 2013, the law enabled Glenda Virgil, who served 26 years in prison for shooting her abuser, to successfully apply for parole. In March 2014, the first woman was released under AB593: Mary Jones spent 32 years in prison after her abusive boyfriend coerced her into participating in a robbery in which one person died. According to Olivia Klaus, under the new laws, at least three survivors have been granted parole under the new law and nine other women have also been able to submit their writs.

Across the country, in New York state, advocates, including currently and formerly incarcerated women, are also fighting to challenge the collision of domestic violence and incarceration with the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act.

The act would enable judges to take abuse into consideration when sentencing survivors convicted of charges that are directly related to abuse. This would not only affect abuse survivors who are arrested and convicted of defending themselves against their batterers, but also survivors arrested for crimes related to abuse. For example, if “Nina” was coerced into participating in a theft by an abusive partner, the judge would have the ability to sentence her to a shorter prison term or to send her to an alternative-to-incarceration. Currently, only people charged with a non-violence offense that permits probation as a possible sentence are eligible for alternatives-to-incarceration. Thus, judges are currently unable to consider non-prison alternatives for survivors convicted of self-defense or other actions that directly stemmed from their abuse.

The act would also allow currently incarcerated abuse survivors to apply to the courts for resentencing. According to the Correctional Association of New York, a prison monitoring and advocacy organization, at least 360 people in New York state prisons (185 women and 175 men) would be eligible for resentencing if the bill passed.  In addition, nearly 500 abuse survivors currently in the court system would become eligible for alternative sentencing.

“This is legislation that takes a step towards trying to change how the criminal justice system treats survivors,” said Tamar Kraft-Stolar, director of the Correctional Association’s Women in Prison Project. “It takes a bigger, broader approach to keeping survivors out [of prison] on the front end or, if they are already in prison, allowing them to apply for re-sentencing.”

The bill was introduced in 2011. “We spent the first few years getting support for this bill,” noted Jaya Vasandani, the project’s associate director. That support included the efforts of currently and formerly incarcerated survivors who shared their experiences with legislators, media and the general public. Vasandani recounts a recent visit to the Rochester area with Kim Dadou, a domestic violence survivor who had been sent to prison. Twenty years earlier, Dadou had lived in Rochester with an abusive boyfriend.  Although she had had him arrested five times and sought numerous orders of protection, the abuse continued. One night, when he was strangling her in the car, she reached for the gun he kept under the passenger seat. She fired and he released his grip. She fled and locked herself in her bedroom. The next day, she learned that her boyfriend had been in a car accident after the shooting. Dadou said she was coerced into a confession that led to her being charged with his murder.  She spent 17 years in prison.

Since her release, Dadou has been speaking about the intersections of domestic violence and incarceration. However, that particular visit was the first time she had done so in the city where she had been abused, arrested and further abused by the legal system.  Before an audience of legislators and law enforcement, she shared her experiences.

“She got a standing ovation,” recalled Vasandani. “Legislation and law enforcement came up to her afterwards and said, ‘You’re right. Twenty years ago, we didn’t have an understanding of these issues. There’s a need for this law.’”

Both the Assembly and state Senate versions of the bill are currently in the Codes Committees of the New York state Legislature. Advocates are organizing to push Sen. Michael Nozzolio, chairman of the Senate’s Codes Committee, to vote the bill out of the committee. “We’ve been working with domestic violence advocates in his district,” said Vasandani. “The domestic violence community doesn’t always support criminal justice reform issues, but they’ve come out in support of this. They understand how critical this is to the people they work with.”

“Domestic violence is one of the most fundamental pathways to the prison system,” Kraft-Stolar stated. “It’s an egregious example of the overuse of incarceration.” Over 100 organizations, including domestic violence groups and crime victims groups, agree and have written support memos for the act.

Legislation such as the Sin by Silence bills and the Domestic Violence Survivors Justice Act is important for addressing the number of survivors revictimized and imprisoned by the legal system. But equally important is addressing the needs of survivors so that they don’t become entangled within the legal system — whether it’s organizing to keep survivors out of prison or creating solutions for safety before their actions push them into the legal system. After all, the cases of Marissa Alexander, Glenda Virgil, “Vanessa” and all too many other survivors have illustrated that putting your faith in the legal system can be a dangerous gamble for survivors of domestic violence.

Victoria Law is a freelance writer and editor. She frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is the author of "Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women" and the co-editor of "Don't Leave Your Friends Behind: Concrete Ways to Support Families in Social Justice Movements and Communities."

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