Marissa Alexander’s case took place during a turbulent moment in modern history, during which the use of force against black communities was constantly being questioned and brought into the national spotlight.
Prior to her case in 2012, George Zimmerman had filed a motion under Florida’s "Stand Your Ground" law, and he thereafter gained immunity for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Meanwhile Ms. Alexander, a domestic violence survivor and resident of Florida, filed a motion under the same statute and was denied immunity. The legal documents of Ms. Alexander’s attorney, Kevin Cobbin, shed light on how the treatment and results of this case were rooted in discussions of race, class, gender, and sexuality, not justice or the law.
According to her testimony, Ms. Alexander’s relationship with her then husband, Rico Gray, began in January of 2009, but by that autumn she had filed a restraining order. A year later, she was pregnant with his child; however, by the summer of 2010, she had moved in with her mother to protect her physical and mental health from Gray’s ever-increasing volatility. After her daughter was born and quickly transported to the neonatal intensive care unit, Ms. Alexander stopped by her former home, which was still leased under her name, to pick up some of her possessions. There she found her ex-husband and his two sons. Though she felt uneasy, she showed him a picture of their new daughter on her phone and left it with Gray before going to the bathroom. On the device was a conversation between Ms. Alexander and a previous ex-husband, in which Ms. Alexander had sent him photos of her newborn with the intent of having them shown to her other children who were staying with him. From this the altercation arose, when Gray began banging on the door of the bathroom in a fit of rage and refused to let her through the bathroom doorway. She eventually got through and made her way to the garage in order to escape, but the garage door was not working; fearing for her life, she grabbed her shotgun. Gray approached her threatening physical harm, and she fired a single warning shot (no injuries were sustained). Gray then proceeded to call the police. They arrested Ms. Alexander under three counts of Aggravated Assault with a Deadly Weapon.
Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law reads “JUSTIFIABLE USE OF FORCE: Home protection; use or threatened use of deadly force; presumption of fear of death or great bodily harm.” In other words, force may be used if there is threat of great bodily harm or as a means to protect a person’s residence or dwelling. Looking at this incident, particularly with the knowledge of Gray’s history of domestic violence, it is easy to understand why Ms. Alexander and her physical safety would feel threatened in the midst of his rage. The residence in which the altercation occurred was also listed under her name, thus invoking a portion of the law that views home protection as a justifiable use of force. The law goes further in discussing the different legal routes taken in cases where there is room for retreat, but in Ms. Alexander’s case, it is important to note that there was no room for retreat because the garage door was not functioning whatsoever.
Kevin Cobbin, the defense attorney for Ms. Alexander, advocated for her cause in court by consistently addressing her experience of abuse. He collected verbal confirmations of her ex-husband’s violent interactions as well as his pattern of lying to the court, presenting a particularly jarring incident when Gray had said that “if he could not have her, ain’t nobody going to have her.” Cobbin also relayed to the court that Gray had rushed toward Ms. Alexander and exclaimed “Bitch, I’ll kill you.” Testimonies from her daughter, mother, sister, ex-husband’s son and ex-husband’s mother all supported her claims of her ex-husband’s violence; these intimate connections to both Ms. Alexander and Gray were crucial to reinforcing the credibility of her testimony. Mr. Cobbin’s own impressive credentials did not hurt either. Having previously been named one of the top 100 trial lawyers nationwide, fifty percent of Cobbin’s caseload had been criminal defense oriented, with the majority of these cases involving black men. His firm partner, J. Mechelle Herrington, was a black woman, and all of the pictures on his website exclusively displayed African American clients and families. The mission statement of “The Law Office of Kevin M. Cobbin” read, “Our mission is to make a difference in our local community through active involvement and by providing quality representation to our clients”, further demonstrating the defense attorney’s commitment to the advancement and protection of communities of color.
Despite Cobbin’s proven track record, however, the challenges he faced in navigating Ms. Alexander’s case were unique compared to those of his prior clients. Her blackness and femininity were simultaneously in the spotlight, as was made clear with the attorney’s intense focus on her motherhood as a means of eliciting sympathy and understanding from the jury. In the testimony, Mr. Collin described the incident of “Ms. Alexander not having her cell phone... or her keys in her breast pump bag.” The fact that she had a breast pump bag was certainly not imperative to the evidence in the case, save for the understanding that this element of “code switching” would make the defendant much more readable for the court. Collin went on to write that Ms. Alexander had given her daughter a safe word, “Spongebob”, and advised her to call 911 if that word were ever to be used in case that “mommy was hurt or in danger and did not want [ex-husband] to know she was calling the police. The word was only taught to protect mommy when she was in danger.” In this portion of the supporting testimony, Mr. Collins stopped referring to his defendant as Ms. Alexander and instead called her “mommy”, reminding the court once again of her motherhood and therefore of her humanity. Violence against Ms. Alexander was thus equated to a violent affront on the sanctity of motherhood. Building upon this, significantly more time and investigation were dedicated to her daughter’s testimony than that of the other witnesses.
Other aspects of Ms. Alexander’s case which had to be navigated were the tropes that were and are still often used to stigmatize black women. The “angry black woman” and “lazy black mother” were a few of the motifs that threatened the credibility of the accused. The angry black woman motif had been systematically used to diminish complaints of those being affected by inequalities; no matter how real or traumatizing their experiences, black women’s reactions to them were and still are liable to be cast aside as examples of blind, unwarranted anger. Similarly, thanks to rhetoric espoused by the likes of Ronald Reagan in the 70’s and 80’s, black mothers were often portrayed as “Welfare Queens”, responsible for unhealthy, dysfunctional homes and continuously leeching off of their breadwinning, emasculated husbands. The latter trope in particular was troublesome since a small portion of the jury was liable to identify with the reasoning behind the “emasculated” Gray’s fits of jealous rage. Mr. Collins did his best to combat these well-entrenched societal expectations of Ms. Alexander’s character by asserting her non-confrontational and personable nature. He wrote that those who had known the defendant for years, be they family members, friends, or colleagues, could attest to her reputation as a “sweet, peaceful lady.” The word “peaceful” and the connotations of a word like “lady” were the most that the defense attorney could muster to ward off the stereotypes of black women that have proliferated in popular media and racist propaganda throughout history.
For all of the defense’s strength, it took the jury only twelve minutes to decide Ms. Alexander’s fate. Although no one was injured by her self-defense, she was imprisoned for three years before the Free Marissa Now Campaign, having kept her case relevant, arranged a plea deal in 2013 so that she could serve the remainder of her sentence under house arrest. Now an advocate for justice reform, Alexander is rightly convinced that the current burden of proof gives the government too much power to criminalize certain pockets of domestic violence victims, black women in particular.
"My experience was that if a defendant goes into a stand-your-ground case, they have to testify in their own defense," Ms. Alexander said. "The burden is on you. You're already behind the eight-ball. You have to prove that you're innocent ─ you're already guilty."
The verdict by Judge Senterfitt framed Ms. Alexander’s use of violence not as an act of necessity and self-defense but as avoidable. The fact that the burden of proof was so firmly put upon a victim of domestic violence is especially egregious given the fact that, only a year prior, George Zimmerman had exploited the same “Stand Your Ground” law so egregiously at the expense of a seventeen-year-old’s life. Keeping in mind the prevalence and power that destructive racial and gendered ideology continues to have on the legal system’s treatment of black women today, Alexander’s upcoming memoir on her story and her non-profit, The Marissa Alexander Project, are current much needed bastions of justice reform for our country.
Emily is a recent graduate of Boston University and is currently working for the AIDS Action Committee. Email her here.