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Marissa Alexander Case: Blame "10-20-Life" More Than "Stand Your Ground"

"Stand Your Ground" may be a problematic law that may actually increase the homicide rate in states that have enacted it, but is it in and of itself a racist law? Activists and journalists calling renewed attention to the case of Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman who unsuccessfully tried to use a "Stand Your Ground" defense after she claimed she fired a warning shot at her abusive husband, seem to think so.

But Alexander's fate actually illustrates the occasional absurdity of Florida's unique "10-20-Life" law more than it illustrates racism at play in the application of "Stand Your Ground."

The parallels between the George Zimmerman case and the Alexander case are pretty much limited to this: Both happened in Florida, both claimed self-defense, and both had charges levied against them by prosecutor Angela Corey.

Alexander attempted to have her charges thrown out before the trial, citing the "Stand Your Ground" law, something Zimmerman's attorneys opted to ultimately forgo.

As CNN points out, the details of the Alexander case are tricky.

Alexander and her husband, Rico Gray, have three children, one of whom was a newborn and still in the hospital at the time of the 2010 incident. The two had not been living together for two months, but while Alexander was in Gray's home, the two got into an argument about the paternity of the newborn.

Gray has an extensive history of domestic-abuse charges and the previous year had sent Alexander to the hospital with a head injury after shoving her into a bathtub. On that morning, Gray tried to keep Alexander in the bathroom, but she eventually escaped. She could have left the house at that point but instead went to her car and retrieved her licensed and registered handgun and returned to the house.

While Gray was standing in a room with the couple's other two children, Alexander fired a shot that just missed Gray's head.

Alexander claimed that Gray had threatened to kill her that morning and she had fired the shot as a warning.

 

Gray gave a different initial account to police. Alexander swore to a court that she would not have contact with Gray, but the court found the two did keep in contact. During a deposition, Gray changed his initial story and claimed he had threatened to kill his wife, but he then recanted this during another deposition, according to CNN:

Gray said he lied during his deposition after conspiring with his wife in an effort to protect her. At the [Stand Your Ground] hearing, he denied threatening to kill his wife, adding, "I begged and pleaded for my life when she had the gun." The motion was denied by the judge.

Even then prosecutors didn't want to put Alexander behind bars for 20 years. They offered her a plea deal that would have put her in jail for just three. Alexander decided to head to trial. She was found guilty, and under Florida's 10-20-Life law, she will be sentenced to 20 years.

So what is 10-20-Life? It was the centerpiece of Jeb Bush's 1998 run for governor and one of the first major laws he passed. It sets harsh minimum sentencing laws for those who use a gun during a crime. If you pull a gun during a crime, you'll automatically get ten years. If you shoot that gun, you'll get 20. If you actually shoot someone during a crime you'll get at least 25 years, with the maximum penalty being a life sentence.

Detractors say the law takes power out of judges' hands to grant more lenient sentences in tricky cases like Alexander's. Even former Republican legislator Victor Crist, author of the bill, says he didn't intend to target cases like Alexander's with the law.

"We were trying to get at the thug who was robbing a liquor store who had a gun in his possession or pulled out the gun and threatened someone or shot someone during the commission of the crime," Crist told the Huffington Post.

"The irony of the 10-20-Life law is the people who actually think they're innocent of the crime, they roll the dice and take their chances, and they get the really harsh prison sentences," Greg Newburn, Florida director of Families Against Mandatory Minimums told the Post. "Whereas the people who think they are actually guilty of the crime take the plea deal and get out [of prison] well before. So it certainly isn't working the way it is intended."

So while "Stand Your Ground" may have played a role in Alexander's case, the real travesty of justice here is thanks to 10-20-Life.

As for whether "Stand Your Ground" is applied in a racist way across for Florida? It's hard to say. The Tampa Bay Times has put together a database of 200 cases that ended in fatalities in which the defendants used a "Stand Your Ground" defense. "The list, though incomplete, is the most comprehensive in the state and likely includes most fatal cases," claims the Times. And, yes, people of all different races have successfully avoided charges under the law.

Follow Miami New Times on Facebook and Twitter @MiamiNewTimes.


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