initially sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a single warning shot against her abusive husband in 2010. Her attorneys unsuccessfully tried to use Florida’s “stand your ground” law in her defense, saying she feared for her life when she fired the shot. Earlier this year, she was freed from house arrest after being jailed for three years and serving two years of court-ordered home confinement.
We turn now to the case of Marissa Alexander, the African-American mother of three who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she maintains was a warning shot at her abusive husband in 2010. She attempted to use Florida’s “stand your ground” law in her defense—the law that was made famous when white vigilante George Zimmerman successfully used it as his defense after he shot and killed unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. But in March 2012, the jury rejected Alexander’s use of “stand your ground” and convicted her after only 12 minutes of deliberation. She was sentenced to 20 years behind bars under a Florida law known as “10-20-Life” that carries a mandatory minimum for certain gun crimes regardless of the circumstance. Alexander won an appeal for a new trial and later accepted a plea deal that capped her sentence to three years of time served. Earlier this year, she was freed from house arrest after being jailed for three years and serving two years of court-ordered home confinement. We go to Jacksonville to speak to Marissa Alexander.
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the case of Marissa Alexander, the African-American mother of three who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she maintains was a warning shot at her abusive husband in 2010. She attempted to use Florida’s “stand your ground” law in her defense, the law that was made famous when white vigilante George Zimmerman successfully used it in his defense after he shot and killed unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. But in March 2012, the jury rejected Alexander’s use of “stand your ground” and convicted her after only 12 minutes of deliberation. She was sentenced to 20 years behind bars under a Florida law known as “10-20-Life” that carries a mandatory minimum for certain gun crimes regardless of the circumstance. Alexander won an appeal for a new trial and later accepted a plea deal that capped her sentence to three years of time served.
AMY GOODMAN: Earlier this year, Marissa Alexander was freed from house arrest after being jailed for three years and serving two years of court-ordered home confinement. We go now to Jacksonville, Florida, to speak with Marissa Alexander.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Marissa. Talk about how it feels to be free now and what these last years were like, when you weren’t in prison, but you were under house arrest.
MARISSA ALEXANDER: Thank you for having me, Amy. It’s been—you see I’m smiling. I’m so excited to be able to be a part of the movement that’s going on. I really wanted to hit the ground running. I wanted to be able to travel. I wanted to spend, you know, time with my kids outside of my home. So, that’s been great. And basically, the last two years, I really want to spend that time in building what I’m doing right now, which is my nonprofit. I pretty much completed a large portion of my book. So, I really wanted to use that time to not be bitter, but be stronger and hit the ground running and just make an impact.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, your daughter was only nine days old when this altercation occurred between you and your ex-husband in 2010.
MARISSA ALEXANDER: Right.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, can you tell us about her now, how old she is, and whether you’re able to spend time with her?
MARISSA ALEXANDER: Right. She will be turning seven in July. So, she’s getting to be a big little girl. And we do have—we are divorced, and we have shared custody of her, so we, you know, split that time. And we just have a love fest. You know, for me to not be able to see her until she was three and for us to have the bond that we have now is just—it’s, you know, a beautiful thing.
AMY GOODMAN: In 2013, we spoke with civil rights advocate and attorney Michelle Alexander, author the best-selling book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. She talked about what role mandatory minimum sentencing played in your case, Marissa.
MICHELLE ALEXANDER: She received a 20-year sentence because of harsh mandatory minimum sentences, sentences that exist in Florida and in states nationwide. Mandatory minimum sentences give no discretion to judges about the amount of time that the person should receive once a guilty verdict is rendered. Harsh mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenses were passed by Congress in the 1980s as part of the war on drugs and the “get tough” movement, sentences that have helped to fuel our nation’s prison boom and have also greatly aggravated racial disparities, particularly in the application of mandatory minimum sentences for crack cocaine.
AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s Michelle Alexander. We’re speaking with Marissa Alexander—no relation—who is speaking to us from Jacksonville. And, Marissa, if you can go back to 2010—yes, I want you to respond to what Michelle Alexander said, but back to 2010, and describe to us what happened, and then, with the killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, the vigilante, who was acquitted, unlike you, how that changed your case?
MARISSA ALEXANDER: Well, you know, for me, that particular day, it was a reaction to an action. So, you know, it was a matter of a fight or flight. You know, I felt like I did the best I could. I maintain that. I still don’t believe what I did was wrong. The kids were not present. I would have never done that. That was not an issue. And that was—I believe that came out in my first trial.
As far as it played forward with George Zimmerman, that was around the same time, because, by this time, you know, his case was going along, but mine hadn’t made it to the media. You know, his was—originally, he was given immunity at the crime scene but then, later on, was charged. I was charged first and then had to have a hearing. So there’s the difference between, you know, he and I, our cases. So that was the difference.
And then, essentially, it’s in the—it’s in the jury instructions, regardless. So, you know, the difference in our cases is the fact that, you know, you had a child that was killed and was not present, and so you had no testimony. In my particular case, you had witnesses, or victims, if you will, that had the opportunity to change their stories, as was done in my case. So, that’s where some of that was a little bit different. But, essentially, our cases—you know, the only similarity is the fact that “stand your ground” was a commonality. Other than that, there were different circumstances and, obviously, different scenarios.
AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, you had Angela Corey, who was the special prosecutor in both your case as well as the case of George Zimmerman. And at a news conference in 2012, a reporter asked Corey about that controversial law, known as “stand your ground” or what some call “right to shoot first.” Here’s how Corey responded.
ANGELA COREY: If “stand your ground” becomes an issue, we fight it, if we believe it’s the right thing to do. So, if it becomes an issue in this case, we will fight that affirmative defense.
REPORTER: How would you say “stand your ground” has affected your job since it became law?
ANGELA COREY: My prosecutors—and a lot of them are here, and I’m so proud of them—they have worked tirelessly running this office while we’ve been working on this case. They fight these “stand your ground” motions. Mr. Moody just finished a four-day full “stand your ground” motion on another case. We fight hard. Some of them, we won, and we’ve had to appeal them—or the defense has appealed, and we’ve won it on appeal. Some, we fought hard, and the judge ruled against us. That’s happening to prosecutors all over the state. It is the law of the state of Florida, and it will be applied.
REPORTER: But you think it’s invoked too much?
ANGELA COREY: Justifiable use of deadly force, as we all knew it before “stand your ground” was issued, was still a tough affirmative defense to overcome, but we still fight these cases hard.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, that was Angela Corey, the special prosecutor in both your case, Marissa, as well as the case of George Zimmerman. So, could you comment on what she said and also say what you think the explanation is for how “stand your ground”—the “stand your ground” law was applied in your case and in Zimmerman’s case?
MARISSA ALEXANDER: OK. So I can just tell you from my perspective. I went into it, and I was always trained in the castle doctrine. So when I did what I did, I had no idea about “stand your ground.” I felt I did what I was taught, which was a duty to retreat before you use lethal force. I was inside my own home. I had a concealed weapons license, permit, and I also had a restraining order for—at that time. So, that’s in and of itself.
Given that that’s—I’ve seen—I haven’t—I mean, from my experience on the inside, I can tell you this: A lot of times the defendants do not get the opportunity in cases where it is truly self-defense to even utilize that, especially defendants that are black. That’s what I have seen. And in most cases, they automatically have a “10-20-Life” placed on their folder. They have the enhancement. This legislation that was passed, which is—oddly enough, doesn’t give judges the discretion, what it does give is the prosecutors discretion. And I think that’s backwards, because it obviously is advantageous to the prosecutor to use it. So, I believe to put a mutual party in there that does give them discretion to look at it and say, “OK, I feel that it fits into a minimum mandatory situation,” as opposed to it not, and they’re supposed to be a mutual party, what it does is it gives the prosecution that advantageous advantage. And that just, to me, doesn’t work well for the defense, in most cases.
AMY GOODMAN: Marissa Alexander, during the time of your house arrest, you had to pay for the costs of the monitoring. Also, you had a monthly drug test. But over the course of the two years, you paid around $10,000? Can you talk about the significance of this and also what it meant, in January, when you had your ankle bracelet, your monitor, taken off, what you did, and what it meant in terms of your freedom?
MARISSA ALEXANDER: OK. You know, I was fortunate that I had support and the means to be able to pay for my ankle monitor. You’re talking about the cost of supervision. You’re talking about the cost of monitoring. You’re talking about drug tests, that I only got one the entire time I was on it, but I paid for it every month. You’re talking about it was being—it was taxed. I had court costs. And, essentially, I did not have an idea about how much I was supposed to pay towards the end, so I ended up having to come up with a couple thousand dollars in a short period of time. You’re talking about people who are—it’s hard for defendants, who come out, to get a job, if you’re on regular probation, with the fees where you don’t have an ankle monitor and pay for that, let alone have the ankle monitor and have to pay for those, which are obviously a little bit higher, and then try to obtain employment and pay those fees. And a lot of the time, they’re not able to do that and are subject to being violated on a technical violation because they can’t make the fees. It’s hard for the convicted to be able to get jobs that will allow for them to pay—you know, pay for those services—I mean, pay for that actual ankle monitor.
Now, when I got my release, it was very important. My sister was pregnant. She had just got a new place, so that was the first thing I wanted to do, was spend time with her. So, me, my mom and her, we met, and we had a glass of wine. I took my baby girl to breakfast that following morning. We sat down at Cracker Barrel and had breakfast. And I took my twins to dinner that night. So it was important for me to just spend time outside of my home with the people that I love the most. And then, the following day, I had a celebration.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Marissa Alexander, very quickly, before we conclude, I mean, it’s extraordinary what good use you made of your time under house arrest. I mean, first, you mentioned earlier that you completed or almost completed a book manuscript, and then, also, the Marissa Alexander Justice Project that you began. Can you talk about both those projects?
MARISSA ALEXANDER: OK. So, the first year, I didn’t want to lose sight of what I had experienced. So, there was a lady who had written a book. She’s an older lady, much wiser, and she kind of experienced some of the things that I did. So she came in, and it was very cathartic for me to just be able to, you know, kind of regurgitate all of the experiences that I had, so that I would not lose them. So I did that for about six to eight months. And honestly, it was just emotionally taxing. And so I got that to a certain point.
And then the next order of business, because I was doing paralegal school—I was bored out of my mind. And I felt like the best impact for me to do was to start my own nonprofit, not to trump what was going on, but to add to what’s already existing. And so, my nonprofit really focuses on the things that I feel like affected my case the most and just what affects our community as a whole. You’re talking about domestic violence and intimate partner violence, and the impact that it plays in just the homes and social norms and what people experience. And then you’re talking about criminal policy reform, those things, because my case did assist in changing some laws. The fact that I was given a minimum mandatory sentence, that alone has increased—like Michelle Alexander—mass incarceration. You’re talking about juveniles. I mean, these kids are experiencing things that, I mean, most of us have never had to experience. They don’t have a chance from the start. So I just feel like, you know, my nonprofit really wanted to touch on all of these things and be able to, you know, from the—I’ve been in it from the trenches, and now I’m looking at it from a bird’s-eye view. And I just believe that we have an opportunity to do better, and we have services that are available, but it’s not connected to the community. The community don’t know about the services. So, my question is: Where is the disconnect? So, I have answers for that, but, you know, that’s probably for another time.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Marissa Alexander, I want to thank you so much for joining us, initially sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing a single warning shot against her abusive husband into the ceiling in 2010. Her attorneys unsuccessfully tried to use Florida’s “stand your ground” law in her defense, saying she feared for her life when she fired the shot. In January, she was freed from house arrest after being jailed for three years and serving two years of court-ordered home confinement. Congratulations, before, being able to walk into the studio freely and leave it freely.
MARISSA ALEXANDER: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’re going to speak with a Syrian refugee who just graduated from college here in Tampa, Florida, and he gave the commencement address. Stay with us.