Civil Liberties

Meet the Florida State Attorney Who Vindictively Wants to Send Marissa Alexander to Jail for 60 Years

Angela Corey is making sure this domestic violence victim will suffer as much as possible.

Photo Credit: AFP

Sixty years. That’s the amount of time Marissa Alexander may face in prison for firing a warning shot that injured no one. If she lives until her release, she will be 93 years old.

Before about a week ago, Alexander was facing a possible 20-year prison sentence if she was found guilty of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. But last Saturday, Florida State Attorney Angela Corey announced that Alexander would have to serve the sentence consecutively (20 years for each count), not concurrently, effectively putting her behind bars for life.

This isn’t the only time Corey has taken the malicious route when it comes to Alexander. From prosecuting her from the start, to pursuing the case after Alexander won an appeal, and then painting Alexander as careless while out on bond, Corey seems to be making sure this domestic violence victim will suffer as much as possible.

“She clearly has an ax to grind,” said Alisa Bierria, member of the Free Marissa Now campaign fighting for Alexander’s release. “It’s clearly a symbol for her in terms of her reputation as a prosecutor. And I don’t know how really else to look at it except that it’s a personal vendetta against this one woman who has done nothing to Angela Corey.”

Corey’s Reputation

There are 20 state attorneys in Florida whose responsibility is to represent the state in the prosecution of criminal law violations. Corey, a Republican, is a State Attorney in Florida’s Fourth Judicial Circuit Court and in charge of prosecuting crimes committed in Duval, Clay and Nassau counties, which include Jacksonville — the city where she was born and raised.

Early on in her law career, Corey had expressed her frustration with increased crime in the neighborhood. While she was an Assistant State Attorney, Corey said in an interview, “I never thought, growing up here, that the homicide rate would ever be as high as it is now. … It bothers me that people aren't recognizing it and trying to do something about it."

Corey seemingly saw herself as the person to get the job done and decided to run for the State Attorney position in 2008. When Corey ran against Jay Plotkin, the chief assistant for her predecessor, her main criticisms were his low conviction rate and Jacksonville’s high homicide rate. Plotkin maintained that Jacksonville’s high crime rate was due to societal problems. Corey defeated her opponent with more than 64 percent of the vote, becoming the first woman to hold the position.

When Corey took office, she axed more than one-fifth of the office —including “half of the office’s investigators, two-fifths of its victim advocates, a quarter of its 35 paralegals, and 48 other support staff.”  

“If the decision was made on a strictly political basis, I wasn't surprised,” John McCallum, a contributor to her opponent’s campaign and one of these investigators let go, told The Florida-Times Union.

Corey then soon earned the widely used description for her: “tough as nails.” In 2011, she made headlines for condemning a judge who went against a jury’s vote to put a mentally retarded man convicted of murder on death row. The judge cited his mental disability as reason to let him live and serve a life sentence. Corey filed an objection venting her dissatisfaction, and told the Times Union,"The people of Florida were deprived of a proper death penalty." A new report has found Corey leads the state in death row convictions.

Corey, however, was most notorious in 2011 for considering charging 12-year-old Cristian Fernandez as an adult with murder, which would have made him the youngest person in the country to face a life in prison without parole. Fernandez, however, accepted Corey’s plea deal of seven years in a juvenile facility.

Placing minors in the predicament of accepting a plea bargain or being tried as an adult is not uncommon for Corey. In fact, Jacksonville, which is mostly under Corey’s jurisdiction, leads the state in the number of juveniles incarcerated using this method. In addition, while Corey prides herself in reducing the crime rate, the jail population in one county she covers has so risen dramatically, a researcher decided to look into the matter, and determined it was caused by Corey’s “aggressive style as prosecutor.”

When criticized in a Times-Union op-ed about Fernandez’s case, Corey responded by writing the paper a letter hinting at libel charges.

She made the same threat to Harvard legal scholar Alan Dershowitz, who criticized her handing of the Trayvon Martin case and suggested her disbarment.

In 2012, after running unopposed and maintaining her seat for a new term, Corey prosecuted George Zimmerman following 45 days of protest. Corey was extensively criticized for mishandling the jury, not preparing the witnesses, and overcharging Zimmerman.

In fact, Corey has been criticized for overcharging all three defendants in her high-profile cases — Zimmerman, Dunn, and Alexander — all with the desire they accept her plea bargain.

Corey said she was convinced to file the case against Alexander after hearing the evidence. To Corey’s disdain, Alexander, knowing she could face a 20-year sentence under Florida’s 10-20-life mandatory minimum law, didn’t accept Corey’s plea bargain of three years in prison and has maintained her innocence.

“If she accepted a three-year prison term — she had just delivered a newborn child — she would be considered a felon, she would lose her voting rights, it would be very difficult for her to get a job…it would be a loss of income,” Bierria said. “All this for defending your life against your abusive husband? Three years would be an outrage.”

But in May 2012, at Alexander’s trial, the jury produced a guilty verdict in 12 minutes, sentencing her to 20 years. In September 2013, Alexander won her appeal because the judge at her trial erroneously instructed jurors that the burden of proof fell on Alexander. Free Marissa Now members organized a letter-writing campaign to urge Corey to drop the case; instead, she decided to pursue a new trial.

Corey on Alexander’s Case

On Aug. 1, 2010, Alexander said her husband Rico Gray accused her of being unfaithful and pinned her down in the bathroom. She escaped to the garage but the garage door wouldn’t open, so she got her gun from her car and went back into the home where Gray and his two children were. Alexander said Gray threatened to kill her and was charging toward her when she lifted her gun up and shot upward into the wall. The bullet ended up in the ceiling.

In his initial deposition, Gray told the same story, adding that he “was in a rage” and mentioning his history of violent abuse. “I got five baby mamas, and I [hit] every last one of them except for one,” he wrote. He also admitted to “four or five” previous instances in which he abused Alexander, including when he “pushed her back and she fell in the bathtub and she hit her head.”

In a letter to her supporters, Alexander wrote that the judge told her that she “could have exited the house through the master bedroom window, front door, and/or sliding glass back door.”

“It suggests that if she were able to leave the house, she would be safe. But what we know about Rico Gray is that another woman with whom he was involved — who he attacked — she did leave the house, and he followed her, and beat her outside and ripped her clothes off while they were outside,” Bierria said, referring to Chartrissia Anderson, who has spoken out about Gray’s abuse.

Corey, however, insists that Alexander did not fear for her life when she fired her gun.

“When you listen to the 911 tape, when you talk to the children and look in their eyes like I did, you understand what happened in this case,” Corey said in an interview with Let’s Talk About It! “And then you know that, yes, justice was done. Because she did choose that dangerous path as opposed to letting them leave, calling the police. She shot out of anger not fear.”

Corey has maintained that Alexander was not justified in citing the Stand Your Ground law, which was also rejected by the circuit judge. She also cites the 911 tapes in which Gray said Alexander aimed the gun at him and his children. Gray also said on his erratic call that he and his children were running when Alexander was shooting. He added that he was “so pissed.” He did not mention that he was afraid or begging for his life — the story he began telling months after his initial deposition. Both Gray's and his children’s testimonies have been inconsistent.

While Gray can’t seem to keep his story straight, Corey continues to make stark conclusions. She said that Alexander influenced Gray when writing his initial testimony.

“She begged him not to do anything that would put her in prison,” Corey said. “But he’s the only victim in this case. I have two children that are victims, sir. What about the two children? … What message are you sending to those two children who had no choice about being in that room with her?”

Asked to comment on Gray’s history of abuse and the abuse of Alexander that day, she said: “Not all of that is relevant. His reputation for violence is relevant. But again, we have rules of evidence that limit the way that evidence can come in. … Are you saying that drug dealers can be murdered and because they have no credibility, we don’t prosecute the people who murder them?”

The problem with that analogy, as noted on Let’s Talk About It!, is that Alexander didn’t murder or injure anyone.

Corey, however, said this was a fortunate outcome of the situation.

“You’re saying, that because the bullet, which she didn’t know which way it would have ricocheted, because it happened to ricochet up into the ceiling instead of down into one of the two children she fired the gun at, that she should somehow be excused from her action of pulling the trigger?” she asked the host.

In November 2013, two months after she won her appeal, Alexander was released on bond. Shortly after her release, she got in an altercation with Gray, which Corey is also using in her defense. This altercation remains one of most perplexing parts of the story, as reports don’t seem to add up.

“What do you think of a woman who claims she is so afraid of him that she had to fire the gun at him, and then despite a judge’s order, while she’s out on bond for these charges, goes back over there and hits him, gives him a black eye and goes to jail for it?” Corey said.

Alexander’s lawyer explained that Alexander needed to get a health certificate signed in order for their daughter to keep her health insurance. She emailed Gray to sign it, but he said to come over. She went, with two others, and there he attacked her again, and she went to the hospital. An Alexander supporter said Alexander wasn’t able to hit Gray and suggested he gave himself a black eye, as he has hurt himself prior to calling the police in the past.

Now, Corey has announced that if Alexander is found guilty the day of her trial July 28, she will have to serve a 60-year sentence. Corey cites state rules established last year that require someone convicted of multiple counts of  the same crime under Florida's 10-20-life mandatory minimum law to serve their sentences consecutively. But Bierria said Corey has the autonomy to decide these matters.

Corey’s prosecutorial excesses jump out to other prosecutors. George Dekle, a retired prosecutor told the Times Unionthat the law usually considers an increased sentence on a retrial vindictive.

“Prosecutors will say it’s not vindictive, it’s what the case law now says you have to do,” Dekle said. “It will be up to the judge to decide if he agrees with that.”

Corey and her staff continue to imply in the press that Alexander should have taken her plea bargain. Responding to Congresswoman Corrine Brown’s (D-FL) criticism of her harsh sentencing (Brown has called Corey “basically the worst [attorney] in the whole state”), Corey called the plea “mercy” on Alexander.

“For Angela Corey to constantly bring up the [plea bargain of] three years, as it’s some kind of gift, is completely offensive and disrespectful to all women who believe it’s our right to protect ourselves from violence,” Bierria said.

Corey’s Possible Motivations

The most prevalent explanation for Corey’s prosecutorial zeal is her desire to use Alexander as a symbol for her political ambitions.

“The only conclusion that we’re left to draw is that this is a political decision that she’s making to protect herself from all of the scandals that surround her,” Bierria said.

Corey’s office has recently faced three lawsuits. In addition, she received a lot of public criticism for failing to secure murder charges for Zimmerman and Dunn.

“But Corey’s mediocrity as a atate attorney runs even deeper than Zimmerman and Dunn,” Jason Johnson, a political science professor and analyst, wrote in an op-ed. “According to AVVO.com, an independent site ranking lawyer quality across the United States, Corey scores a paltry 6.7 out of 10. Compare this to the two defense attorneys who represented Zimmerman, Mark O’Mara (10.0) and Don West (10.0), Dunn’s defense attorney Cory Strolla (6.9).”

Though Corey has maintained a tough persona from the beginning, these recent inadequacies may be inciting her to pull out all the stops on Alexander. Yet, the negative attention she’s gaining from her actions belies this assumption.

Perhaps she is also hoping to maintain a reputation as an objective prosecutor, who sees the court as race- and gender-blind.

As Democracy Now!reported, Corey has said: “Those of us in law enforcement are committed to justice for every race, every gender, every person, of any persuasion whatsoever. They are our victims. We only know one category as prosecutors, and that’s a V. It’s not a B, it’s not a W, it’s not an H. It’s V, for ‘victim.’ That’s who we work tirelessly for.”

But with that comes her desire to leave out context, which unarguably affects people’s choices in our society. Just as Corey refused to bring Michael Dunn’s racist statements into his trial, she refuses to bring Gray’s history of domestic violence into Alexander’s trial.

In an open letter to Angela Corey, after Dunn was not convicted of Davis’ murder, a community of social justice advocates has urged her to pay more attention to racist bias in the courtroom.

“We urge you to replace your team’s current race-silent approach with a race-explicit strategy,” they wrote. “Twice now prosecution teams under your leadership have chosen not to clearly and unequivocally name racial bias as a factor in the killing of black teenagers.”

When it comes to Marissa Alexander, Bierria said Corey is ignoring both racial bias and stigmas toward domestic violence victims.

“There are all these questions about whether or not Stand Your Ground applies to battered women,” Bierria said. “Are women allowed to stand their ground when they’re in their own homes? Why is it that we always put the burden on battered women to leave? Why is it that batterers are not given the burden to leave the home? And why do we assume that if a battered women leaves the home, that she will then be safe? That is an irrational assumption. If you understand anything about domestic violence, you know domestic violence doesn’t magically end once you leave the boundaries of your house.”

The Future for Corey, Alexander, and Domestic Violence Victims

With a mediocre record and mounting criticism, it seems as if Angela Corey believes that in order to save her career she must prove that she’s capable of successfully prosecuting a case — with Alexander offering her a public opportunity to do so.

Meanwhile for Alexander, in order to save her life and her family, she needed Corey to drop this case. Now, she will hope to receive a not-guilty verdict come July.

Bierria stressed that this case has much larger implications than simply Alexander’s future.

“We really want Marissa Alexander to be free because it’s her and her family’s life at stake. That’s first and foremost,” she said. “But it’s so much bigger than that. We care about Marissa’s life, but if she is found guilty for 60 years, that is an enormous statement about the right of women to defend themselves. And if she ends up getting 60 years, I just don’t know what to say to people who are in abusive relationships today.”

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet.