From spray-painted T-shirts and canvas banners, square black stickers and solemn portraits, Trayvon Martin’s face stared out at a Leimert Park rally in Los Angeles last weekend, hours after George Zimmerman was found not guilty in Florida.
But on pamphlets distributed at the edge of the crowd, a different image stirred protesters. It was the face, they said, of another black victim of unequal justice: Marissa Alexander.
Alexander, 31, a mother of three, was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison for firing one shot into the wall of her Jacksonville, Fla., kitchen during an argument with her husband, against whom she had a protective order.
Since Zimmerman’s acquittal, Alexander has emerged as a symbol to Martin supporters of a legal system they say tramples on the rights of black people. The Rev. Jesse Jackson this week visited Alexander in her jail cell and advocated for her release as protesters nationwide raged against self-defense laws they say are unevenly applied.
"She's the poster child for 'stand your ground,'" Kevin Cobbin, Alexander's attorney, told the Los Angeles Times. "We have to ask ourselves if there is a double standard. Are black males and females not getting the same benefit of the doubt when they make the [same] claim as others?"
Critics say Alexander wasn't treated fairly. Despite reports of her history of being abused and her husband’s threat during their argument that he’d kill her, Alexander was denied a “stand your ground” immunity hearing. The judge ruled that Alexander was the aggressor because she left the scene of the argument, retrieved a handgun, and returned to confront her husband.
Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which Zimmerman’s lawyers chose not to invoke in favor of a standard self-defense claim, makes the use of deadly force justifiable if the defendant fears for his or her life or serious bodily injury.
If Zimmerman is allowed to walk, protesters charge, then so should Alexander, whose only crime was to fire what they call a “warning shot” at a man who had twice been arrested for attacking her.
But examined more closely, Alexander’s case and Zimmerman’s reveal something other than racial bias, some lawyers said. Instead, they say, the cases expose Florida’s thicket of contradictory gun laws, as likely to exonerate a man who kills an unarmed teenager as they are to leave three children motherless because she fired a bullet into a wall.
Richard Sharpstein, a prominent Miami defense attorney, explained that the two cases diverge in more ways than the defendant’s race.
Zimmerman, charged with second-degree murder, was able to use photos of his bloodied nose and head to argue that he acted out of fear for his life. Forensic evidence supported his story, and Zimmerman killed Martin, the only other person who could have contested his claim. The jury found Zimmerman not guilty.
Alexander tried to capitalize on the same leniency in Florida’s self-defense statutes by invoking "stand your ground." Prosecutors, however, argued that the evidence in her case was incriminating.
They said Alexander could have left her home during the argument. Instead, she got her gun from the garage and fired a shot in the direction of Rico Gray, her husband, and his two boys, 9 and 13. The 911 call Gray placed after the shooting indicated he was fleeing and scared for his life. Alexander also reportedly sought out Gray at his “safe house” a few months after the shooting and instigated a fight that left him with a bloodied eye.
With three victims testifying against her, Alexander was convicted of aggravated assault. She was sentenced to 20 years in prison under Florida’s “10-20-Life” minimum sentencing law, which requires anyone who fires a gun during an aggravated assault to serve 20 years.
Weighing Alexander’s case against Zimmerman’s exposes the pliability of Florida’s self-defense laws, said Greg Newburn, Florida project director for Families Against Mandatory Minimums.
More disturbingly, he said, the two cases highlight a tension between Florida’s permissive self-defense statutes and its stringent penalties for firearm violence.
“Florida’s gun laws are schizophrenic,” Newburn said.
In combination, they can have the effect of warping a criminal’s incentives, he said. Self-defense laws reward shooters with permission to kill if they can prove they’re acting out of fear for their lives. At the same time, minimum sentencing laws mandate harsh punishments for those whose fear is judged to fall short of that threshold – regardless of context or motivation.
Under these laws, it’s in a person's interest to preserve the appearance of self-defense rather than mitigate the violence of his act, Newburn said. In theory, that could lead a person to kill in order to eliminate eyewitnesses.
“Yours is the only story being told if the other person is dead,” Newburn said.
Even a judge’s sentencing discretion expands in cases involving death because manslaughter doesn’t automatically trigger Florida’s “10-20-Life” provision. Newburn said the judge would have had more flexibility in sentencing Alexander if she had killed her husband, rather than shoot into a wall.
The dissonance in Florida’s gun laws can prove especially ruinous to victims of domestic violence, said Linda Osmundson, director of a domestic violence shelter in St. Petersburg, Fla. Courts treat women who lash out violently at abusive partners as aggressors, she said, with little sensitivity to the ways in which they may be victims.
“The distinction between anger and fear is pretty slim for people who have lived in terror,” Osmundson said.
Alexander will be in prison until 2031.