Activism

Activists Organize 'Standing Our Ground Week' Ahead of High-Stakes Marissa Alexander Hearing

Why are Stand Your Ground laws applied to paranoid, gun-wielding men but not women fighting off domestic abusers?

Photo Credit: FreeMarissaNow.org

Ninety-three years old. That’s how old Marissa Alexander will be when she’s released from prison if she receives the 60-year prison sentence she's facing for firing a warning shot to ward off her abusive husband.

But before a Florida trial that could impose that lifetime sentence begins this fall, another even more important hearing will take place. On Friday, Aug. 1, the same judge will take testimony and rule if Alexander is entitled to a hearing to decide if she is immune from prosecution under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.

The stakes are tremendous. The rest of Alexander’s life hangs in the balance. But there’s also the deeply disturbing question of whether “Stand Your Ground” laws apply mostly to often-paranoid men wielding guns but not women fighting off domestic abusers. Outside the courtroom, activists have been busy raising these issues and others, as Florida’s legal system, its institutional racism and politics come into the spotlight. 

The Free Marissa Now campaign, which is working for Alexander’s release, has joined forces with key local and national reproductive justice, anti-domestic violence and anti-mass incarceration organizers to hold a “Standing Our Ground Week” to highlight the racist and sexist prejudices at play in the criminal justice system. Sponsors of this week-long event, from July 25 to Aug. 1, include the Jacksonville chapter of the New Jim Crow Movement and the National Congress of Black Women, while representatives from Planned Parenthood and the National Organization for Women will also be in attendance.

The gathering comes on the one-year anniversary of George Zimmerman’s exoneration for the murder of Trayvon Martin in what’s arguably the country’s most notorious Stand Your Ground case. After the jury freed Zimmerman, seasoned lawyers said that Florida prosecutors never intended to convict him. Now, the question is, will the same law free a black female abuse victim?

“What we really want to do is to promote the politics of black lives matter,” said Alisa Bierria, member of the Free Marissa Now campaign. “We believe that in the prosecution of George Zimmerman, we did not see the value of black lives matter as that prosecution unfolded. And we didn’t see the value of black lives matter in the prosecution of Marissa Alexander. And that’s the main thing that pulls these two cases together.”

The events in Jacksonville will see hundreds gather at what Bierria said will be a “warm and beautiful convergence” filled with creativity and art as well as political discussions. It includes various panels, legal rights training, a march, a candlelight vigil, and a “court watch” on Aug. 1, to attend Alexander’s hearing. Solidarity events will be held in Chicago and New Orleans. The Free Marissa campaign has a list of ways people everywhere can participate.

Championing Alexander’s plight and showing how Florida’s twisted laws work has been anything but simple, Bierria said. “It’s really challenging, but also educational for us to learn how to organize around a system that you have no control over,” she said. “And it’s been very educational for me to really see how people’s lives depend on other people’s schedules. If the judge is taking a vacation, if the prosecutor is not available, that means your trial is pushed for another six months or so. I do think there’s a kind of violence in that bureaucracy.”

Duval County Circuit Judge James Daniel made the most recent delay in Alexander’s retrial, from July 28 to Dec. 8, saying he wanted to evaluate how a new Florida law, dubbed the “Warning Shot” bill, would affect the case. Signed into law by Gov. Rick Scott in June with Alexander’s case in mind, it extends Florida’s Stand Your Ground law to include self-defense protections for those using the threat of deadly force, not just deadly force itself.

While prosecutors argue that the new law can’t be used retroactively—underscoring their desire to imprison Alexander for life—Bierria said it might give Daniel room to issue a new interpretation of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. But the new law, sponsored by the National Rifle Association, mostly appears to re-enforce Florida’s pro-gun laws. And Bierria isn’t optimistic that Florida’s institutional racism is about to disappear. 

“When Zimmerman was acquitted for murdering a child, we saw that Marissa Alexander was not only found guilty in just a few minutes, but received a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years,” Bierria said, highlighting the hypocrisy of these laws. “We could see right there, the ways in which this judicial system operates.”

If Daniel does grant Alexander a Stand Your Ground hearing and a judge decides she did act in self-defense, Alexander will be exonerated. She will not have to go to trial in December, where she may face a 60-year prison sentence. State Attorney Angela Corey announced she would seek to have Alexander serve her sentence consecutively; 20 years for each of the three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Bierria said the campaign hopes Alexander, a mother of three who is currently under house arrest, would be freed as soon as possible. Alexander has incurred $250,000 in legal fees—and that’s with a pro bono legal team. Her ankle monitor costs $105 a week. She has to post a bond payment of $500 every other week. And she has her family responsibilities.

Marissa Alexander’s life was complicated enough before this legal battle. The incident that led to her arrest happened on Aug. 1, 2010, when her husband started to strangle her in the bathroom after seeing texts on her cell phone to her ex-husband. Minutes later he charged Alexander in rage while threatening to kill her. That’s when she fired the warning shot—which injured no one. Alexander’s initial hearing for a Stand Your Ground case was denied because a different judge stated that Alexander’s actions were “inconsistent with a person who is in genuine fear for his or her life.”

At her trial in May 2012, the jury found her guilty in 12 minutes, sentencing her to 20 years under Florida’s 10-20-life mandatory minimum law. But in September 2013, Alexander won her appeal because the judge erroneously instructed her jurors. Free Marissa Now members organized a letter-writing campaign to urge the prosecutor to drop the case. Instead, State Attorney Corey decided to pursue a new trial.

Alexander’s lawyers sought another Stand Your Ground hearing prior to the retrial, arguing that the full evidentiary record was previously ignored by the court. They also say the previous court was presented with bad lawyering—a case addressing the wrong statute of the Stand Your Ground law. 

Bierria has no insight into what Judge Daniel will decide on Aug. 1. What she does know, she says, “is that the criminal punishment system has consistent bias against black women.… We want to highlight the ways it incarcerates black women disproportionately and doesn’t believe them when they tell them they’re experiencing violence in their lives.”

Crime statistics confirm that women of color are disproportionately impacted by domestic violence, which one in four adult women in the United States will experience in their lifetime. Bierria said it would be a tragic commentary about the value of women’s lives if their capacity to protect themselves is threatened by incarceration.

“A life sentence for self-defense,” she sighed. “If we don’t make sure Marissa gets free, it will be such a historic moment that speaks volumes about women’s rights to defend our lives.”

More information on the Jacksonville Standing Our Ground Week as well as a livestream of the events can be found here. For information on the Chicago and New Orleans events as well as ways to participate nationwide, click here

Alyssa Figueroa is an associate editor at AlterNet. 

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