BY TRAVIS TOWNSEND, ESQ.
The case of Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman facing 20 years in prison for aggravated assault, is a tragically twisted mirror of the Trayvon Martin case. The court documents for Marissa’s case report that a domestic altercation ensued between Marissa and her husband in her home, that Marissa ran from her husband momentarily to her garage, eventually retrieved her registered firearm then fired a warning shot through the roof of her own house to protect herself.
After her husband fled the house to call the police in response to the warning shot, Marissa was arrested on the scene, processed and charged.
Now: Juxtapose the facts of Marissa’s case with those of the Trayvon Martin case. George Zimmerman, under no duress or threat, took it upon himself to surveil Trayvon, pursued Trayvon against the instructions of a police dispatcher, shot and killed Trayvon and was not arrested or charged with any crime for more than 46 days following the killing.
The inconsistent treatment of George Zimmerman and Marissa Alexander is a terrible commentary on the fairness of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law and its effectiveness to protect individuals who use lawful force in self-defense pursuant to its provisions.
At the scene of Marissa Alexander’s incident, she invoked Florida’s Stand Your Ground law by giving her account of the event. Section 776.112 of the statute states that a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to herself.
Section 776.032 states that a person who uses force as permitted in Section 776.012 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution (which includes arrest).
Marissa informed the law enforcement agents on the scene that she feared for her life. She provided further context for the officers by informing them that her husband had a history of abuse, and that she obtained a protective order against him that same year in connection with an assault that resulted in her hospitalization.
Despite Marissa’s account and evidence of her husband’s abuse that could have easily been confirmed by the officers on the scene, the officers proceeded to arrest her.
By contrast, George Zimmerman avoided arrest for 46 days simply by stating that he was forced to shoot and kill Trayvon after Trayvon allegedly jumped on him out of nowhere and physically assaulted him. Further, but for public outrage and activists shining the spotlight on Trayvon Martin’s death, it is almost certain that George Zimmerman would never have been arrested at all.
The disparity in treatment between Marissa Alexander and George Zimmerman by law enforcement is glaring, and its absurdity is undeniable. Beyond the discriminatory application of the law by the police is the misapplication of the law’s immunity provision by the judicial officer presiding over Marissa’s Stand Your Ground hearing. At the hearing to determine if Marissa did indeed have immunity under the statute, her counsel presented the sworn statement of her husband confirming that he was the aggressor and threatened to kill her. In ruling that immunity did not apply, the judge cited that Marissa had opportunities to exit the house and escape the fight. One very controversial aspect of the Florida statute is that it expressly states there is no duty to retreat. Whether you agree that there should always be a duty to avoid physical harm and death, if at all possible, during an altercation, or it is your position that a person should never have to take ownership for the safety of another who created the perilous situation, there can be no dispute that the law, as enacted does not require Marissa to have escaped her own house. Marissa had a strong case for immunity at the scene and at her hearing; however, she was unfairly denied. Which begs the question, why?
Opponents and proponents of the Florida statute alike, must ask why the law as it currently reads, was successfully used by George Zimmerman, but was unsuccessfully invoked by Marissa Alexander. Supporters of George Zimmerman and proponents of the Florida statute should be up in arms on Marissa’s behalf. The incident for which she was convicted is text book self-defense, expressly permitted by the statute, yet she is unjustly facing 20 years of incarceration for defending herself against spousal abuse. If the law is inapplicable in Marissa’s case, how much protection can others facing a life or death situation expect if they stand their ground?
Meanwhile, opponents of the Stand Your Ground law should be vigilant in investigating such cases to determine what patterns of discrimination exist. By highlighting such inequities, the case for examining Stand Your Ground is strengthened. Good laws applied unequally cannot go unchallenged. It is essential that bad laws applied unfairly receive even deeper scrutiny. Parties on all sides would do justice to these cases by seeking congruent administration of the law. Marissa has yet to be sentenced and post-trial motions are being considered. Her counsel is seeking a new trial. If she is ultimately sentenced to 20 years in prison, everyone loses as incongruent administration of the law cuts against our sense of racial and gender equality.
TRAVIS TOWNSEND, ESQ. is Managing Partner at Atlanta-based Townsend & Lockett, LLC and author of When the Cops Come Knockin’.