I have written about the terrors of some of the creatures here in Florida, and there are quite a few of them. However, there is something far scarier than giant snails and boa constrictors lurking in the sunshine state, and I don’t mean all the black socks with sandals wearing that goes on here.
In Florida we have some laws on the books that I think need to be amended if not totally abolished. No, not the one that states that “having sexual relations with a porcupine is illegal” though that is a real law in Florida. I, of course, would love to know the background as to why this law had to be written, but that is for another blog.
One of the laws I am speaking of is called 10-20-life. The law states that if during a crime you pull a gun you automatically receive 10 years in prison. Firing a gun will land you 20 years, and shooting someone will get you 25 years to life. This law means that during circumstances deemed felonious in nature, if you fire a gun, you will be sentenced to 20 years. Not if you actually shoot someone, because that will get you 25- life, but if you just fire a gun, not even directly at someone, you are going to prison for 20 years. Think about that for a moment.
You might not be familiar with 10-20-life but you probably are familiar with another questionable Florida law commonly called the “stand your ground” law which states that “a person may justifiably use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of an unlawful threat, without an obligation to retreat first.” Unfortunately, you probably know of the “stand your ground law” because of a young man who lost his life, Trayvon Martin. The man who killed him, George Zimmerman, claims he did so under the “stand your ground” law. Zimmerman is out on bail awaiting trial.
Since the “stand your ground ” law, which has been called the “shoot first law” by critics, has taken affect in Florida, self-defense claims have TRIPLED. Sometimes the only witness to the crime is the shooter who can claim self-defense after the fact. Also, the word “threatened” is a very subjective word. I have felt “threatened” by aggressive perfume sample sprayers in the mall. I never thought to shoot them. I am joking about this of course but I am not the only one who finds the wording questionable. John Timoney, who was the police chief in Miami and was an opponent of the “stand your ground” law before it passed, called it “unnecessary and dangerous” and also said “”Whether it’s trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn’t want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you’re encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn’t be used.”
I have heard it said, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, that if you wanted to kill someone in Florida, just drag them into your house and claim that you felt “threatened.”
Stupid, right? AND the damn law doesn’t even work according to several studies. Texas A & M economics professors found that the adoption of the “stand your ground” laws caused a “statistically significant increase in the raw homicide rate and had a very small positive effect on deterrence of crime.” Another study done by economists at Georgia State found a “significant increase in homicide and injury among white males and significantly increased rates of emergency room visits and hospital discharges related to gun in juries in states with these laws.”
Back to 10-20-life and how these two laws intertwine. A few weeks ago I read a story about a woman named Marissa Alexander who is currently in jail in Jacksonville, Florida, serving a 20 year sentence for firing a gun in the vicinity of her husband, Rico Gray. I have never written anyone in jail before but I was so angered by her story that I wanted to offer to help in some way. She wrote me back and said that she appreciated the support and the best way to help her is to write about her and spread the word so that people are aware of her story so that hopefully this will not happen again.
Marissa Alexander had given birth 9 days before she was arrested. The rest of the incident, I will let her tell in her own words, from a Time magazine article, April 2012 -
[Gray] assaulted me, shoving, strangling and holding me against my will, preventing me from fleeing all while I begged for him to leave. After a minute or two of trying to escape, I was able to make it to the garage where my truck was parked, but in my haste to leave I realized my keys were missing. I tried to open the garage but there was a mechanical failure. I was unable to leave, trapped in the dark with no way out. For protection against further assault I retrieved my weapon; which is registered and I have a concealed weapon permit. Trapped, no phone, I entered back into my home to either leave through another exit or obtain my cell phone. He and my two stepsons were supposed to be exiting the house thru the front door, but he didn’t leave. Instead he came into the kitchen that leads to the garage and realized I was unable to leave. Instead of leaving thru the front door where his vehicle was parked outside of the garage, he came into the kitchen by himself. I was terrified from the first encounter and feared he came to do as he had threatened. The weapon was in my right hand down by my side and he yelled, “Bitch, I will kill you!” and charged toward me. In fear and desperate attempt, I lifted my weapon up, turned away and discharged a single shot in the wall up in the ceiling. As I stood my ground it prevented him from doing what he threatened and he ran out of the home. Outside of the home, he contacted the police and falsely reported that I shot at him and his sons. The police arrived and I was taken into custody.
Rico Gray admits that this was not the first time he had abused Marissa. He was arrested for attacking her and sending her to the hospital in 2009 and in 2010 she got a restraining order against him. Not only does Gray admit that he abused her, he states that he had abused several other women before. This is from a 2010 deposition, “I got five baby mamas and I put my hand on every last one of them except one. The way I was with women, they was like they had to walk on eggshells around me. You know they never knew what I was thinking or what I might do. Hit them, push them.”
He sounds charming, doesn’t he? Why would she stay with him? Their story as a couple is complicated but not all that unfamiliar. After the restraining order was filed in 2009, Marissa learned she was pregnant with Rico Gray’s child. She asked the court to amend the restraining order to remove the ban on her and Gray having contact, but to keep the rest of the restraining order in place. She wanted the father of her child to be with her during the pregnancy, and if you know anything about battered women, you will know it is very common for victims of domestic violence to find it difficult to cut all ties with their abusers. Gray and Marissa actually got married while the restraining order was still in place, though they did not live together and were not living together when the incident occurred.
The thing is, none of this matters. The why’s and OMG how could she stay with him are details that do not matter. What matters is she felt threatened that day because of his past behavior. It is interesting to note that Marissa’s story has never changed. Not once. Rico Gray’s story, however, has changed from him corroborating her story to stating that she aimed the gun at him and shot and missed. According to Marissa and her father, Marissa has been a licensed gun owner for years and went to the gun range fairly regularly. Marissa’s father stated that if she wanted to shoot someone, she would not miss.
Marissa Alexander rejected a plea deal and went to trial and was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon with no intent to harm. Marissa told Police Officers that she feared for her life. It sounds like she SHOULD be protected by the “stand your ground” law, right? If there was ever a time for that stupid law to come into play, a woman with a history of being abused by the man she shot around (not even AT) should be the time. A judge rejected the motion to invoke “stand your ground” because she could have exited the home. The judge must have forgotten that the wording of the “stand your ground” law clearly states that when your life is threatened you have no duty to retreat, meaning, you don’t have to leave when you feel threatened. In other words, shoot first, ask questions later. I suppose Marissa would have been better off just shooting the jerk, then “stand your ground” would come into effect. The judge also made the decision that because her behavior was “inconsistent with a person who is in genuine fear for his or her life” that she could not invoke the “stand your ground” law.
Again, I will let Marissa Alexander explain in her own words why this is so freaking crazy -
“Look at the facts of the case and be fair. To me, it’s a human rights issue. You tell me that I can bear arms. You tell me that I can go to class and get a permit (to carry). And you tell me everything that I need to do to get on the right side of the law, which also includes getting an injunction for no violence in place. And then you try to dictate to me my level of fear. That could be anybody. That could be a male…a female…somebody Hispanic…(Asian American), white…it doesn’t matter. It’s a human rights issue.”
- Marissa Alexander to Loop 21
If her behavior was not consistent with someone who was genuinely in fear for her life, which honestly, unless this judge was in the room when the incident occurred, I have no idea how he could even make such a statement, and she couldn’t invoke the “stand your ground” law, and the only other option is to abide by another law that states she must go to jail for 20 years, with no possibility of early release, then surely this is a case for amending if not both than at least one of these dumb-ass laws.
Circumstances HAVE to play a role in sentencing. There is no one size fits all solution and CERTAINLY, even if you are the most staunch supporter of either or both of these laws, you have to agree that this situation, and others like it, and there are others like it, are not what the writers of the 10-20-life law had in mind.
“Stand your ground” laws have been proven not to be even effective and when something like what happened to Marissa happens or A 17 year old boy is killed and the killer is able to possibly walk away because of it, things need to change. And change fast.
I am sure Marissa Alexander wishes she could do a lot of things differently on that day and it is easy for all of us to pass judgement on what she did do. I am also sure she would accept the plea bargain at this point if she could. I am not saying she does not deserve any punishment whatsoever, but she has served more time already than people who have killed and raped other people. She shot at a ceiling. That is insanity.
California just passed a law that will review non-violent 3 strikes cases on an individual basis, and it is retroactive. A judge has been assigned the task of reviewing 1000 cases where the offenders received life sentences merely because it was their third “strike”. One of the people who was serving a life sentence who received a lesser one is a 74 year old man who has served 15 years for possessing $10 worth of drugs.
It is time for Florida to follow suit and amend these laws. I have no idea how to go about getting that done. I know at one time there was a petition to change the the 10-20-life law, and with the Trayvon Martin case receiving so much national attention, the “stand your ground” law was being discussed a lot, but I think even that has stalled. I do know that I will do everything I can to make sure that this doesn’t happen to anyone else again. I know there is a lot of injustice in this world. I just want there to be LESS. NONE would be preferable, but I’m idealistic, not delusional.
Here is a link to Marissa’s blog with her story and other information. Currently her family and other advocates on her behalf are raising money for an appeal. Marissa told me that she has been blessed from a funding standpoint (it amazes me that she could say she’s been blessed at all) and that telling her story is the best way to help her. I hope I have done that.