Marissa Alexander case in spotlight after Zimmerman trial

July 15, 2013

Two Florida towns, 125 miles apart. Two people firing weapons at unarmed aggressors, purportedly in self-defense.

George Zimmerman, the 29-year-old neighborhood-watch commander, fatally shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin but was acquitted by a jury that apparently concluded he was in fear for his life.

Marissa Alexander, a 32-year-old mother of three, fired what she described as a warning shot in the direction of her husband — against whom she had a protective order — and two stepsons. No one was injured, but she was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 20 years.

In the wake of the Zimmerman trial and the national debate on race and justice that it prompted, Alexander’s case — from 2010 — has drawn renewed attention, including an online petition seeking a pardon from Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) that has generated more than 36,000 signatures.

Supporters say Alexander, who is African American, was a victim of ingrained racism in Florida’s courts. Some say that those same alleged prejudices allowed Zimmerman, who has a white father and a Peruvian mother, to walk free after killing Martin, who was black.


Marissa Alexander purchases cosmetics in Tampa, Fla. (Lincoln B. Alexander/AP)

But Angela Corey, the state attorney who prosecuted Alexander and oversaw the Zimmerman case, says there were “zero parallels.” The facts surrounding Alexander’s conviction, she adds, are more complex than the Twitter-fueled pardon campaign makes it appear.

“I think social media is going to be the destruction of this country,” Corey said. “How dare people just repeat something without checking it’s true.”

Alexander was convicted of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for firing a gun into a wall close to where her husband, Rico Gray, and stepsons were standing, after she and Gray had a dispute.

When questioned by police, Alexander said she discharged the weapon to avoid being beaten by Gray, who was subject to an injunction prohibiting violent contact with her. Alexander, who had given birth to Gray’s child nine days earlier, said she had no intention of killing him.

A judge rejected her bid to mount a defense under Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, which allows people to use deadly force if they or their homes are in danger. After she rejected a three-year plea deal, Alexander was convicted and sentenced to 20 years, as required by Florida’s strict sentencing guidelines on crimes involving a gun.

Kevin Cobbin, Alexander’s attorney, said his client was justified in firing her gun because Gray “had put his hands on her and there was a fight in the bathroom.”

“The judge decided not to make the call to grant ‘stand your ground,’ ” Cobbin said. “If it had been a white female, I believe she would have.”

Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.), whose district includes parts of Jacksonville, last year described Alexander’s case as evidence of “institutional racism.”

But Corey said there are other, less widely shared details that paint a different picture.

She said Gray’s sons were pulling on their shoes to leave the house when Alexander raised her weapon to fire — in other words, they and their father were about to leave.

While online accounts sympathetic to Alexander say she fired shots into the ceiling, the single bullet she fired actually hit the wall, not far from Gray and the boys, then ricocheted into the ceiling, Corey said.

Corey also points out a later incident when Alexander, while free on bail and awaiting trial, became involved in an altercation with Gray that left him with a swollen eye.

“She put a round in the chamber, and she fired that shot out of anger, not fear,” Corey said. “She didn’t need to use that gun. Those kids were scared to death. They ran for their lives.”

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