Imprisoned mom still hopes "Stand Your Ground" can help her

The Zimmerman case has gotten Marissa Alexander new attention -- and her lawyer says "she believes in the system"

By Katie Halper
Published July 19, 2013 2:44PM (EDT)
Marissa Alexander                   (AP/Lincoln B. Alexander)
Marissa Alexander (AP/Lincoln B. Alexander)

Maybe one good thing that can come out of George Zimmerman's acquittal is a new awareness about "Stand Your Ground" laws and their unequal application in our criminal justice system. One victim of this inequality -- whose "Stand Your Ground" pretrial motion was denied and whose case the Zimmerman trial helped publicize -- is Marissa Alexander, a 32-year-old African-American mother of three, currently serving a 20-year jail sentence for firing a warning shot, without killing or injuring anyone, to scare off her husband (she had a restraining order against him, and he at one point admitted to abusing her). It's a stark and troubling contrast: A woman was sentenced to 20 years for firing a gun without hitting anyone, while a man who fatally shot an unarmed teenager walks free.

The Zimmerman verdict has brought Alexander's case increased media coverage, interest on the part of politicians and activists, and several petitions. And after Alexander was sentenced to 20 years, a group of attorneys who had not represented her during her trial took over the case, pro bono. They're now waiting for the court to hear their oral arguments or render an opinion in her case. If the court reverses her conviction, it could order a retrial. Or it could determine that the "Stand Your Ground" motion should have been granted, giving Alexander immunity and ending the case.

One of Alexander's attorneys, Bruce Zimet of Fort Lauderdale, told me, "We think we have very valid issues and we think we have a lot of law supporting our positions." First, he said, the jury instructions referred to the “injury to the victim.” But Zimet said there was no injury. Also at issue is Alexander's testimony: "Her testimony went two days and the state tried to prohibit Marissa from talking to her attorney at all during the overnight recess. The judge came up with a compromise, a split the baby kind of determination that she could talk about some things but not about other things with her attorney. What we are arguing is that any prohibition at all of an attorney being able to speak to their client during the course of a recess would be inappropriate, especially during the course of their testimony."

The controversial "Stand Your Ground" law is a key aspect of the appeal strategy: "At a pretrial hearing, the judge erroneously concluded that 'Stand Your Ground' did not apply to Marissa. Marissa had a duty to flee and or retreat, the judge said ... 'Stand Your Ground' really means just the opposite ... You don't have to flee, you don't have to retreat." Indeed, the statute explicitly states that a person "has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony." If Alexander's husband was abusive and threatening to kill her, as she has testified, she would have had no duty to retreat under the law.

Zimet also explained that Alexander was sentenced to 20 years under Florida’s 10-20-Life law, which set minimum sentencing laws for people using a gun during a crime. Prosecutor Angela Corey, who also oversaw the prosecution of George Zimmerman, did offer Alexander a deal in which she would be sentenced to three years in exchange for pleading guilty. But, believing this to be unfair, Alexander turned down the plea deal and wound up being sentenced to 20 years.

Sadly, it’s often the people who believe they are innocent who are most hurt by the mandatory minimum sentence. According to Greg Newburn, Florida director of the Families Against Mandatory Minimums advocacy organization, "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 … 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."

But Angela Corey may not have needed to charge Alexander with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. Former prosecutor Eric Matheny told Subhash Kateel, host of the Florida radio show "Let’s Talk About It," that the 10-20-Life sentencing was avoidable: “I'll tell you what they could've done because I had this exact situation ... I had a client who was an elderly gentleman ... in his 80s ... he was charged with aggravated assault with a firearm ... what [the prosecutors] did was they charged him with aggravated assault, they did not list the firearm enhancement ... punishable by five years in prison, no mandatory minimum ... if found guilty the judge would've been free to do whatever the judge wants to do ... prison ... probation ..." And civil rights attorney John De Leon agreed: "An assault (second degree misdemeanor) could have been charged instead of an aggravated assault with a deadly weapon ... which would probably have been the appropriate charge in this case."

These issues may be important, but ultimately Zimet’s focus is Marissa Alexander: “In the meantime, I have a mother of three people who is in prison who we think shouldn't be in prison.” He explained, “She's got two really, really great kids. They're really good students, the kind of kids that shake your hand, look you in the eye, converse with you, not caught up in computer games. They have been and continue to be raised very well,” by Alexander’s mother and their father, Alexander’s first husband. As for Marissa, whom Zimet saw last week, “her spirits are incredibly good, considering what she's been through in the last two years. She's an incredibly strong woman. She's very religiously routed, she has a very strong family backing. And quite frankly, she believes in the system and believes that when mistakes are made in the system they can be corrected. That's what she's optimistic about.”

Zimet “guestimate[s]” that the case will be heard in the next few months. He says, "My focus is on the practical, on getting the case reversed.” He is working on making sure Alexander’s faith in the system is earned.

Katie Halper

Katie Halper is a writer, filmmaker, comedian and host of the Katie Halper show, a weekly WBAI radio show and podcast. She writes for The Nation, Rolling Stone, Vice, The Guardian, and has appeared on MSNBC, HuffPost Live, RT, Sirius Radio.

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George Zimmerman Marissa Alexander Stand-your-ground Trayvon Martin