comments_image Comments

Will Emotional Terrorism Rule the Courts in the Marissa Alexander Case?

Society has a long way to go on addressing the tragedy of spousal abuse.

Marissa Alexander, the African-American mother whose warning shot in self-defense landed her 20 years in jail, is at home right now in Florida. Her sentence was overturned in September, and finally—on the night before Thanksgiving—she was released from a jail cell on bond. That means Alexander can sleep in her own bed, run a bath, open a window, look at the sky, and kiss her babies without the sounds of keys and injustice.

Alexander's release from jail marked a powerful moment in a long battle waged by her family and a network of activists across the country for her ultimate freedom. There are conditions to her release on bond. She must wear an ankle bracelet at all times, is under 24-hour house arrest, is subject to warrantless searches of her residence and can only attend court appointments; any other outings must be mandated by the court. Alexander has three children, and her two eldest kids are with her. She is currently in the process of divorcing Rico Gray, her abusive husband who beat her during her third pregnancy and threatened her life the day she fired a shot in self-defense. She cannot contact or communicate with him or his two children—both of whom were in the house at the time of the incident. 

Alexander's new trial starts March 31, 2014. Once again, Alexander will not be able to invoke the stand-your-ground defense that was rejected during her first trial. In that trial, the prosecution argued that since Alexander left the house to go get a gun, before returning and firing the warning shot, she could not invoke stand your ground. Those details will be argued again during the retrial.

Alexander's case speaks to a larger issue that requires careful consideration. The law's failure to grapple with the cumulative impact of domestic violence on a survivor's sense of fear and notion of threat is one such issue. In examining only a single moment, the law fails again and again to navigate the world of a domestic violence survivor. In that sense, Alexander's individual case is symptomatic of a larger cultural issue: our flourishing economy of violence that is sustained by emotional terrorism—its primary weapons being silence, blame and shame.

Rico Gray admitted to being violent toward the five women with whom he has children. In a 2010 deposition, Gray said, “I got five baby mamas and I put my hand on every last one of them except one. The way I was with women, they was like they had to walk on eggshells around me. You know they never knew what I was thinking or what I might do. Hit them, push them.” In that same deposition Rico explained that in a previous altercation he violently pushed Alexander, who fell back into a bathtub and hit her head, causing her to pass out. He was charged and sent to jail for that incident. Gray's statement supports the statistical evidence that domestic violence is rarely a one-time thing and that violence almost always escalates.

We almost always ask the victim, why didn't you just leave? Our economy of violence has an emotional currency: a specific and deadly structure of weapons routinely aimed at women revolving around the tropes of responsibility, silence, judgment, blame and shame. Separation, for example, does not necessarily lead to the end of domestic violence. Research highlights that over 70 percent of the women injured in domestic violence cases are injured after separation. Again, as women are so often held responsible for the domestic violence they suffer, they are also often charged with resolving that violent situation. If they don't, they are blamed. If they survive the violence, they are judged. If they find a way to continue, their trauma is dismissed, negated or trivialized. We routinely excuse and exclude men from being active participants in the domestic violence resolution process. These are the politics of emotionality that shape our intimate relationship with violence.