George Zimmerman was able to walk away from the shooting and killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin this week because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. Similar to measures put into place in about 30 states across the nation, Stand Your Ground allows Floridians to resort to deadly violence when they feel their lives may be in imminent danger, and qualifies such actions as self-defense even if no attempt to retreat is made. Rulings of justifiable homicide are proven to be more common in these states than states without similar ordinances. It’s become clear, however, that the law does not apply equally to differing populations.
Marissa Alexander is a mother of three who was found guilty on three charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for firing a warning shot to protect herself from her husband, who has a reported history of violence against various women, including Alexander herself. At the time of the incident, Alexander had a restraining order against him and had been previously hospitalized due to injuries sustained from his abuse.
The incident in question occurred on August 1, 2010, when she went to her old home to retrieve some personal items. Her estranged husband, Rico Gray, began levying threats against her while she was in the bathroom and attempted to trap her; though she eventually got away from him, her plan to leave through the garage was thwarted when the door wouldn’t open. Alexander, who has a concealed carry permit, opted to grab her gun and attempt to exit through the main door. Upon re-entry, Gray threatened her life and she fired the warning shot. He called the police and she was arrested.
Despite overwhelming evidence that Alexander herself had been victimized repeatedly by her husband, a six-person jury sentenced her to 20 years for firing the shot in accordance with Florida’s mandatory sentencing laws. (She had previously denied a plea bargain for a 3 year sentence because she was confident she would win her case.) Gray’s prosecuting attorney, Angela Corey, said that Alexander wasn’t “standing her ground” because “she was not fleeing from an abuser” at the precise moment in which she fired the shot. Because Alexander had re-entered the house from the garage, her use of a weapon was not found to be justified.
To parallel Alexander’s case with the Zimmerman trial produces disturbing questions about race, gender, and the justice system in Florida and across this nation. “The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today,” said Representative Corrine Brown after Alexander’s sentencing. “One is that if women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the ‘Stand Your Ground Law’ will not apply to them. The second message is that if you are black, the system will treat you differently.”
Indeed, a critical look at Stand Your Ground Laws in Florida produces the same unsettling message. According to PBS:
Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings. In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.
In other words, as Ms. magazine clearly explained, “stand your ground decreases the likelihood of conviction, but only when a white person is accused of killing a black person.”
Marissa Alexander’s case exemplifies an array of inequities in our justice system, but she is unfortunately not alone. CeCe McDonald, a black trans* woman from Minnesota, was found guilty in 2011 of second-degree manslaughter after surviving a racially-charged transphobic attack and is serving 41 months in a men’s prison; ThinkProgress recently profiled various black men who were found guilty despite using Stand Your Ground to justify actions of self-defense. George Zimmerman, however, used the law to walk away from the killing of an unarmed black teenager. It isn’t hard to see that these laws fail to support victims across a broad spectrum of identities, and have absolutely failed to protect victims of color. Until it is possible for us to fairly represent all people in our justice system, it is that which has failed as well.
The Feminist Majority Foundation supports Marissa Alexander and believes in repealing Stand Your Ground laws across the United States.