Activism Violence Against Women

#FreeMarissa: Why Prosecution for Domestic Violence Goes Wrong and Why Marissa Shouldn’t Bear the Brunt of It

Let me start by saying this: My experience with domestic violence in no way matches the brutality that so many people have experienced. Even this many years removed, I find myself debating whether the fact that “it could’ve been worse!” invalidates every action before I was abused.  (And even now, I struggle to use active phrasing.)

But I can absolutely understand and relate to the calculating one must go through before taking any action to stop an abuser from being abusive. (This is to say nothing of the work required to piece yourself, your psyche, your person, your sense of power, and your sense of self-efficacy back together – let alone that of any dependents or any other primary responsibilities.) And that’s why I find Marissa Alexander’s story so enraging.

I’m frustrated by the fact that so many steps were followed. So many attempts were made to do things decently and in order – and yet, still, Marissa could face up to 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot. She suffered abuse and hurt no one, but now she’s the criminal. How does that happen?

A little like this.

The Road to (Not) Reporting

In an open address to the public, Marissa recounted the night her husband, Rico Gray, shoved and strangled her, trapping her in the restroom. The full court deposition from Rico Gray may be the last piece of public evidence documenting Gray’s philosophy of violence and his interpretation of his own masculinity. Gray was arrested twice before on charges of domestic violence including an event that hospitalized Alexander.

What’s appalling is that this record has worked against Marissa Alexander.

We know that many victims of domestic violence don’t report. In the very specific case of cisgender black women in intimate relationships with cisgender black men, even thinking about reaching out to law enforcement carries with it the added trepidation that one is committing cultural treason – as well as activating an often lingering distrust for the justice system at-large.

Because of the overrepresentation of black and brown bodies in the prison industrial complex, the very real and legitimate fear of adding to that crisis is the first of many de-prioritizations many people may make when negotiating their batterer’s comfort over their own personal safety. That social pressure to uphold some greater commitment to the plight of The People before indulging in complicity with The State feels more noble than snitching on a lover. (Never mind if there are children involved. The guilt lent to black mothers who dare – against all odds and socioeconomic outcomes – to single parent is forever immortalized and fossilized in the writings of E. Franklin Frazier and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.)

via Daniel Arauz
via Daniel Arauz

Another hesitation to report stems from the very real probability that law enforcement. once involved, could also fumble a domestic violence call. According to The Advocates For Human Rights’ Stop Violence Against Women Project, police families are two to four times more likely than the general population to experience domestic violence. Not every aggressor in incidents of intimate partner violence is male. But the matter of officer-involved domestic violence has reached enough of a tipping point that internal crisis management in local police and sheriff departments has become as necessary as an external strategy to combat domestic violence.

In a small study conducted by at the University of South Florida, Lindsey Blumenstein researched whether “traditional police subculture” influenced police domestic violence in the form of physical assault or psychological violence. There were 250 Central Florida officers contacted across several different departments. Of the 90 officers who responded, 75 were male. Blumenstein found that “officers who adhere to aspects of the traditional police subculture are more likely to engage in psychological domestic violence.”

Though Blumenstein recognized the limited scope of her research, she encourages further research on the impact of law enforcement culture on attitudes about domestic violence. What’s more, the study raises important questions about how local law enforcement can conscientiously combat domestic violence when some of their first responders could be batterers themselves.

While I’m sure #notallofficers are so easily tainted, the public can only chastise problem law enforcement so far as the law will allow. Officers can only be held responsible for enforcing domestic violence laws that exist, and they can only be held to training they’ve been given.

As of 2008, 22 states and the District of Columbia have mandatory arrest provisions; 22 states have provisions of discretionary arrest; and six states have a policy of preferred arrest. In 2007, as part of a working paper on mandatory arrests, Harvard University fellow Radha Iyengar found that states with mandatory arrest laws had homicide rates that were at least 50 percent higher than states without these laws.

“In some cases, victims may favor an arrest, but fear that their abusers will be quickly released,” Iyengar wrote in the New York Times. “Many victims may avoid calling the police for fear that they, too, will be arrested for physically defending themselves.”

The state of Florida, Marissa’s state, has a discretionary arrest provision. This means, a law enforcement officer “determines upon probable cause” that an act of domestic violence has been committed. According to Florida state statute, “the decision to arrest and charge shall not require consent of the victim or consideration of the relationship of the parties.” But heaven forbid that same officer’s judgment should be clouded by Blumenstein’s “traditional police subculture.”

But Marissa’s case goes beyond all of these obstacles. Eventually, Marissa Alexander reported.

Protective Orders That Don’t Protect Anyone

Marissa Alexander had a protective order in place against Rico Gray. But protective orders (should) come with a few cautionary tales.

via Steve Rhodes
via Steve Rhodes

Just this year, an article in Rhode Island’s Providence Journal suggested that filing for a protective order may be a reliable predictor of domestic homicide because of a frequent failure by police officers to enforce them. In her application for a protective order, Evelyn Burgos wrote that she knew what her ex-boyfriend was capable of. “I’m scared he may be waiting for me hiding someday, to hurt me, or that he may try to break in,” she wrote. Two weeks later, her ex shot and killed her and her 25-year-old daughter in the presence of her sons and three-year-old granddaughter.

In a separate incident, Mayra Cruz was murdered by her ex-boyfriend just a day after the local sheriff’s department reported to the court that they could not find the offender to serve the order.

Since 2000, applications for restraining orders have preceded 20 percent of the domestic violence-related homicides occurring in Rhode Island. That number includes the stabbing deaths of two abusive men slain by women in self-defense.

But it’s not just Rhode Island: last summer in Prince George’s County, Maryland, Michael Anthony Johnson was sentenced to 115 years in prison for threatening to rape and kill his ex-wife and her daughters. Johnson’s ex-wife filed a protective order against him after he engaged in stalking and threatening her; he even posed as his ex-wife using fake online profiles and led a constant flow of strangers to her home for sex. Johnson managed to violate the same temporary injunction 56 times before local police arrested him.

When Intervention Programs Erase Data

Following the path of least criminalization, many states also offer lower-level DV offenders the option to enroll in a batterer intervention program. More than 30 states and the District of Columbia have set standards for batterer intervention programs which are designed to help rehabilitate the offender.

While the actual sessions can be a promising approach to changing systemic behavior, there is no data monitoring whether these programs work, or how they can be improved.  For example, is batterer intervention an appropriate tool for Rico Gray? What measurable impact can it have on an admitted abuser who’s said things like “I got five baby mammas, and I put my hands on every last one of them except for one.”

Furthermore, an aggressor’s attendance is not promised, nor is recidivism unlikely. In some cases, a court may accept an online certificate as proof of completion. When a court system fails to demand more of a convicted DV offender, it’s hard to believe they’re sincerely interested in producing rehabilitation. In many ways, they simply make it harder for advocates and activists to gauge the real impact of domestic violence intervention on their communities.

What All of This Means for Marissa Alexander

via Steve Rhodes
via Steve Rhodes

According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, only about 25 percent of all physical assaults, 20 percent of all rapes, and one-half of all instances of stalking by an intimate partner are reported to the police. Only one-fifth of victims reporting an injury from intimate partner violence actually go on to seek medical attention. There are 18.5 million mental health care visits resulting from intimate partner violence. Fear of reporting and the defective laws, training, and enforcement that justify those fears all warrant our keen attention and civic engagement.

Marissa Alexander did her part for the justice system that she’s supposed to be able to believe in, and she defied those odds to protect herself and her family. She reported the violence. She got the protective order. As if for good measure, she took a hospital visit for her abuser. So what exactly was her next move supposed to be? What other burden of proof should she have endured next? The state of Florida has been incorrigibly negligent in its duty to protect, serve, and defend not only Marissa Alexander, but so many other victims of domestic violence. It’s time for Governor Rick Scott, State Attorney Angela Corey, and the state of Florida to do their part and drop the charges against Marissa Alexander.

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