On Tuesday, January 27, 2015, Marissa Alexander walked out of jail, but not as a free woman. At yesterday’s hearing, the judge sentenced her to two years of house arrest with an ankle monitor. The prosecutor’s office attempted to argue that Alexander should serve an additional two years of probation after her house arrest ended, but were unsuccessful. Their continued attempts to punish Alexander for defending herself are a stark illustration of the ways in which domestic violence survivors are criminalized and prosecuted.
Marissa Alexander’s legal ordeal began over four years ago. In 2010, nine days after she gave birth to her baby girl, her abusive husband assaulted her. Alexander fired a warning shot to stop his attack. Although no one was hurt, she was arrested and charged with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. She tried to argue self-defense under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, but a pretrial judge ruled that she could have left her house instead. Less than three months after George Zimmerman shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in what he would later claim was an act of self-defense, Alexander, a black woman, was convicted and sentenced to twenty years in prison under Florida’s “10-20-life” sentencing law.
In 2013, an appeals court overturned her conviction, remanding her for a new trial, but the court also stated that, if she were convicted, Alexander’s sentences must be served consecutively rather than concurrently. The prosecutor once again charged Alexander with three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. This time, if convicted, Alexander would face sixty years in prison, twenty years for each count. In November 2014, Alexander agreed to a plea bargain that included time served for the 1,030 days she had already spent behind bars, an additional sixty-five days in jail and two years of house arrest.
For years, antiviolence activists of color, along with organizations such as Beth Richie and INCITE! Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans people of Color Against Violence, have noted that, by criminalizing survivors, the legal system replays, in institutional form, the domestic violence these women suffered. “Every time the state shames, blames, and punishes victims of domestic and sexual violence, it legitimizes that violence,” members of the Free Marissa Now campaign tweeted hours before the sentencing. While Alexander’s case has often been discussed as an example of the racial bias of the legal system, the intersection of her race and gender cannot be overemphasized.