Editor's note: This column was originally published in the Daily News on May 31, 2012
A GROUP OF activists gathered at 52nd and Market streets Tuesday to protest the arrest of Marissa Alexander, a Florida woman convicted for firing her gun during a confrontation with her estranged husband in which she feared for her life.
Nine days after the birth of their child, the two became involved in a confrontation and Alexander fired a warning shot into the wall to scare her husband, who has a long and documented history of domestic abuse.
Alexander, who had no criminal record, was found guilty of three counts of "aggravated assault with a deadly weapon with no intent to harm" and sentenced to 20 years in prison.
The fact that a protest took place in Philadelphia speaks to the story’s significance to all Americans.
This story matters because it reflects our nation’s stance on domestic abuse. Without question, Alexander made some bad choices on the night she was arrested.
She reportedly left the house, retrieved her gun, and came back inside to continue the interaction. If she’d simply left, her critics argue, there would have been no confrontation and she would not have been arrested. Such a stance, however, ignores the deep psychological toll that years of domestic abuse can play on an individual’s psyche.
Years of domestic abuse can cause someone to make a range of decisions that may otherwise seem irrational or unreasonable. In fact, it is not uncommon for a victim of abuse to "snap," and engage in a sudden, inexplicable act of violence against the abuser. In this case, it is entirely possible that the behavior of Alexander’s husband that night — moments earlier he said that he would kill her before letting someone else have her — served as a psychological trigger. While she should be held responsible for her behavior, her unique circumstances should have been taken into consideration as mitigating factors.
Unfortunately, the Florida State Attorney’s Office decided not to consider such factors when charging Alexander. Rather than accepting her invocation of the Stand Your Ground law, they rejected Alexander’s claim based on the belief that she could have de-escalated the confrontation.
Curiously, they have yet to make the same determination about George Zimmerman, who could have walked away when instructed to do so by the Sanford, Fla., police before fatally shooting Trayvon Martin.
Instead of simply charging Alexander with a third-degree felony that likely would have resulted in a year of county jail time, they elected to add Florida’s "10-20 life enhancement," which made it nearly impossible for her not to receive a 20-year sentence. Once the jury returned with a guilty verdict, the judge had no discretion in handing out Alexander’s exorbitant sentence.
We must ask ourselves if justice has been served. A mother of three sits in prison for 20 years for firing a warning shot against her abuser, who remains free.
Laws like Stand Your Ground may prevent Trayvon Martin’s killer from going to jail, but offer no protection for a victim of spousal abuse. Regardless of how one views the details of this case, it’s hard to imagine that anyone could be comfortable with the outcome.
This is why Tuesday’s rally in West Philadelphia was so important. We must use these moments to organize and fight — for sensible gun laws, and to end mandatory minimums.
Most importantly, we must fight to make sure that our most vulnerable people are protected, so that incidents like these never happen again.