Marissa Alexander Illustrates How the Legal System Can Abuse Domestic Violence Survivors
Portrait of Marissa Alexander by Molly Crabapple.
Marissa Alexander is a mother of three, a Black woman, and a survivor of abuse. She is currently sitting in a Florida prison for firing a warning shot into the wall of her house to dissuade her abusive husband from attacking her. Last month, an appeals court overturned her conviction, ruling that the jury received flawed instructions on self-defense.
Marissa Alexander’s case illustrates how abuse survivors are often criminalized and further abused by the legal system. Her sentencing in 2012, on the heels of Zimmerman’s (successful) use of Stand Your Ground laws in his fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, drew national attention. The legal treatment of Alexander has been outrageous—but where are the masses who took to the streets in outrage after Zimmerman's acquittal?
In case you’re unfamiliar with the case, here’s the backstory: In 2009, Alexander obtained a restraining order against her husband Rico Gray. When she learned she was pregnant, she amended it to remove the ban on contact while maintaining the rest of the restraining order. In July 2010, she gave birth to a premature baby girl, who was placed in the neonatal intensive care unit.
On August 1, 2010, she and Gray were at home when Gray attacked her. When Gray threatened to kill her, Alexander fired a warning shot at the ceiling. Gray called the police, reporting that Alexander had shot at him and his sons. She was arrested and charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Alexander attempted to invoke Stand Your Ground, but a pre-trial judge ruled that she could have escaped her attacker through the front or back doors of her home. In a 66-page deposition, Gray admitted to abusing all five of the women with whom he had children, including Alexander. Despite that, the jury in Alexander’s case deliberated for just twelve minutes before convicting her of aggravated assault. The prosecutor added Forida's 10-20-LIFE sentencing enhancement, mandating a 20 year minimum sentence when a firearm is discharged.
Although her first husband, Lincoln Alexander, and her sister Helena Jenkins have fought for her freedom from the start, the sentencing—and the ensuing publicity—galvanized people nationwide, leading to the formation of the Free Marissa Now campaign. However, many anti-violence campaigns have remained silent. “We are grateful for the support we’ve gotten from anti-violence organizations, such as the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, several state coalitions and community groups,” says anti-sexual violence activist Alisa Bierria, who is a core organizer of the campaign. “However, we would hope that when a survivor of domestic violence is attacked by the courts, we’d see a much more overwhelming response from the large network of anti-violence and feminist organizations.”
Photo of Marissa Alexander courtesy the Free Marissa campaign.
The issue extends beyond Alexander’s individual case. Bierria points out that 85-90 percent of incarcerated women have histories of being victims of violence prior to their incarceration and prison itself is often a site of violence for many incarcerated people. “Marissa is far from the only battered woman in prison,” says Bierria. "This is an important opportunity for anti-violence groups to address the long-term crisis of the criminalization of survivors."
Finally, on September 26, 2013, an appeals court found that the judge's instructions regarding self-defense shifted the burden of proof from the prosecutor to Alexander. It reversed her conviction, remanding her case for a new trial. Marissa Alexander, however, remains in prison. Meanwhile, the prosecution has stated they’ll take her to trial again.
"We need a paradigm shift in how we look at women who survive abuse and how they’re treated by the legal system,” says Sumayya Fire, a long-time advocate against domestic violence and another core organizer of the campaign. “We have such stigma and stereotypes about women who have been victimized by domestic violence. People ask, ‘Why did she stay?’ instead of ‘Why is he abusing her?’ Then, if a woman defends herself, she is sent to prison. I’ve encountered a lack of compassion. People have said that she was angry rather than fearful and that’s why she fired,” says Fire.
Fire also notes that Marissa Alexander is burdened by the stereotype of the angry Black woman: “If you’re a Black woman and you defend yourself or if you are armed, then you’re characterized as angry.” Noting the high rates of homicide in African-American communities, she points out that it's not unusual for a Black woman to have a weapon and that Alexander's gun was registered.
Both Bierria and Fire connect Marissa Alexander’s prosecution with anti-violence movement's increased reliance on policing and imprisonment, particularly in communities of color. “Today’s anti-violence movement is often pro-policing and pro-prison,” Bierria stated. “The Violence Against Women Act passed in 1994 as part of the Crime Bill and had an enormous impact on incarceration. We’re now less likely to find feminist anti-violence activists or organizations who have a critical analysis of the prison industry and its impact on survivors of sexual and domestic violence.”
While the issue extends beyond an individual case, the Free Marissa Now campaign has launched a letter and e-mail campaign to pressure state officials to drop her case. "We're asking people to turn their outrage into action to raise awareness about Marissa's case and to educate communities everywhere about domestic violence," said Fire. "We cannot be silent about addressing racial and gender injustices."
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