Newsflash for battered women in Florida: you are not allowed to fire a warning shot if you are threatened by an abusive spouse; you are expected to flee until he has you cornered and then maybe, just maybe, you will be allowed to defend yourself.
Last week Marissa Alexander, a mother of three, was sentenced to 20 years for three counts of aggravated assault with a weapon with no intent to kill. The charges against her, for which she was convicted by a jury in March of this year, arose out of a confrontation between Alexander and her husband at the time, Rico Gray, in August of 2010, nine days after giving birth to her six-week-premature daughter.
Gray has a history of domestic violence. He was arrested in both 2006 and 2009 on domestic battery charges (against another woman and then Alexander). Alexander had a court-issued protection order in place against him. He also had such an order against her, which rather begs the question of why he was in her house that day in August 2010.
Alexander alleged that Gray found text messages on her cell phone from her first husband, Lincoln Alexander. Gray became enraged, choked her and threatened to kill her, “If I can’t have you, nobody will.”
After breaking away from him, Alexander ran into the garage and found her escape thwarted by a jammed garage door. She needed her cellphone and another exit to escape, so she grabbed her handgun out of her glove compartment and returned to the house.
Gray moved to stop her. Feeling in fear for her life, Alexander fired a warning shot into the ceiling near Gray and his two children who were with him. No one was shot or injured.
Mr. Gray admitted in his deposition that he threatened his wife’s safety on the day she fired the gun into the ceiling. He also admitted that Ms. Alexander never aimed her gun at him (or his two children who were also present). According to Mr. Gray, after she told him to leave her house and he refused, she discharged the gun into the ceiling and no one was hurt. He later called the police and told them what had happened. Ms. Alexander was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault (one count related to her husband, and two more for her stepsons).
Last year the trial judge rejected a motion by Alexander’s attorneys to dismiss the case as a “Stand Your Ground” situation. The judge rejected her justifiable use of deadly force plea because she had returned to the house, placing herself back into the threatening situation. She said Alexander could have fled the scene (through the bedroom window?). Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law says that a person does not have a duty to retreat; that is why it is called “Stand Your Ground”.
State Attorney Angela Corey’s office, which prosecuted the case, confirmed that she was offered a 3-year prison sentence plea deal, but Alexander chose to take her case to trial. If the name’s familiar, that would be because Corey is the prosecuting attorney in the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case. In that case, George Zimmerman is charged with second degree murder in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, after Zimmerman left his vehicle against the advice of the police dispatcher he was speaking with and confronted Martin, who he suspected of being a thief casing homes in the neighborhood. Zimmerman is also planning to present a “Stand Your Ground” defense, which Corey has said will not fly in that case, either.
In sentencing her last week to the state-required minimum of 20 years in prison, the judge reiterated that she could have fled the scene, retreating from the threat, instead of firing that warning shot and placing two children in jeopardy.
It seems that the judiciary in Florida is not consistently applying their “Stand Your Ground” law. There have been numerous cases thrown out based on that law, but there are other judges, like the one in Alexander’s case, who are using the older, more common interpretation of self-defense. In that interpretation, the person in fear for their life should flee if possible; that the person doing the threatening should have physically initiated the confrontation (thrown the first punch, etc.) and that there was truly no other option available to the defendant but to fire their weapon or take a swipe with a knife.
Unfortunately for Alexander, she had escaped as far as the garage. She did not have to return to the house; she could have stayed in the garage with her gun and waited for Gray to either leave or come after her. If he had her backed into a corner and was continuing to threaten her, then she would have had a better chance of claiming justifiable use of deadly force.
Of course, I have yet to meet any battered woman who is thinking rationally when that final confrontation happens, when they are truly in fear for their life. In Alexander’s mind, she needed those keys to get her far enough away from that man to feel safe. Gray claims she came back with the gun to shoot him in anger, not out of fear. Apparently no one pointed out that anger is a frequent result of fear.