The Misfortunes of Marissa Alexander

The facts and the narrative of a new trial in the much-publicized case


The misfortunes of Marissa Alexander, the Jacksonville mother who is serving a 20-year, minimum mandatory sentence for aggravated assault with a firearm, have moved to tears news readers across continents. She recently won a new trial, but her fate will be decided by the facts and the law, not the news stories, petitions, websites and commentaries, so let's recap:

On Jan. 11, 2011, Alexander had a screaming argument with her husband, Rico Gray. Gray had previously abused her and been arrested for domestic battery, though the state didn't prosecute.

Amid the cursing and screaming, Alexander ran into the garage, took a semi-automatic pistol from her car, racked in a round and cocked the hammer, then went back into the house. In the living room, with her husband present and two children looking on, she fired a shot at body height. The shot hit a wall then ricocheted into the ceiling. Gray and the children exited the house. Alexander hunkered down and came out later when confronted by the SWAT team.

When you look at the Free Marissa websites, the petition and the many media accounts, you see the situation portrayed differently, often as an apparent counterpoint to George Zimmerman, who was acquitted in the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin. Like the Zimmerman case, people were horrified when jurors returned their verdict. They believed the heart-rending story, not the gnarly, ugly facts.

The ugly facts are these: Alexander, though she was previously the victim of domestic abuse, had no marks on her at the time of her arrest; after her arrest and free on bail, Alexander in fact drove to her husband's house and beat him about the head until he bled (she later pleaded no contest to domestic battery); she may have feared for her life, but once she escaped her abuser, that fear was no longer a legal excuse for firing the gun; she was not standing her ground in any legal sense.

Alexander's greatest misfortune is to have been badly advised. Her attorney should have moved heaven and earth to persuade her to accept a plea offer of three years. She said no, went to trial, and got two decades on the rock. Her supporters think she will be acquitted at her second trial. I do not.

The self-defense argument was doomed for an obvious reason. Once Alexander was in the garage, and her husband still in the house, she was no longer in danger. Yet she grabbed a gun and returned to the house, resumed the argument and fired. Under Florida law, once you advance even one step toward the other person, you become the aggressor. You instantly lose your rights to Stand Your Ground immunity and self-defense. Having been been abused in the past is not an affirmative defense; it's at best a mitigating circumstance.

The takeaway from this case, then, is not "Omigod, poor Marissa!" It's this: If you're in an argument with a man and fear for your life, leave and stay gone. File the divorce; never look back, never go back. Once you're clear of the man, do not return. Have cops retrieve the kids. Finally, if you fire your weapon, and have not been beaten in a way that's provable, or attacked in view of witnesses, you may spend most of your life in a Florida prison.

That's harsh, but that's life, in the dark and violent precincts,

Of Crime City.

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