I’m worried that Marissa Alexander might end up becoming another Claudette Colvin.
Colvin was the teenager who in March of 1955—nine months before Rosa Parks sparked the civil rights movement by famously refusing to give up her bus seat to a white man—was hauled off a bus, handcuffed and jailed for doing the same thing.
The NAACP had briefly considered using Colvin’s plight to challenge segregation, but there was one problem: She was pregnant and unmarried. At the time, that was frowned upon, and organizers fretted that the just and legitimate cause her defiance represented could be overshadowed by questions about her character and behavior.
So the movement had to wait for Parks.
Which brings me to Alexander, who has become a symbol of the fight against mandatory-minimum sentencing.
Alexander is the Jacksonville, Fla., woman who in 2010 locked herself in a bathroom to escape the wrath of her estranged husband, Rico Gray, before he broke down the door and grabbed her by the neck. The confrontation ended with her firing a gun into the wall in the room where he was with his two children.
During her trial in 2012, Alexander turned down a three-year plea deal, and a judge rejected her "Stand your ground" defense before a jury ultimately found her guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Because of Florida’s minimum-mandatory-sentencing laws, the judge had no choice but to give her 20 years—which is required for anyone who fires a gun in committing a felony.
It doesn’t matter if someone is hurt or not.
But that ridiculously harsh sentence, coupled with Alexander’s backstory—she was a battered woman (with a restraining order) and the mother of a toddler and 11-year-old twins—quickly generated an outpouring of public support.
A Free Marissa Now (pdf) campaign was formed, supporters marched and rallied. Her conviction was thrown out, a new trial scheduled and she was released from prison and put on home detention.
But this past week, something happened that threatened to push her in the direction, in my mind, of the Colvin standard.
State Attorney Angela Corey moved to revoke Alexander’s bond because she broke her detention to shop for clothes and to get her hair done and to run errands—one of which was to the home of her estranged husband’s brother.
Alexander went there briefly to see her sister-in-law, Gray’s brother’s wife, for money for her bond.
That worries me.
Her judgement worries me, because Alexander put herself in a situation in which she could possibly run into Gray after being ordered to stay away from him.
As it turned out, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office home-detention counselor who was overseeing Alexander’s case approved her trips. But the judge was highly displeased; he said the officer should have checked with him first.
Still, Alexander should not let this happen again.
If she gives prosecutors ammunition to paint her as impulsive and lawless, that could cause the public to focus on her character and not on the injustice of mandatory-minimum laws.
I get that Alexander didn’t ask to be thrust into the spotlight, that all she was doing was trying to scare off her abusive husband, and it went awry.
Nonetheless, she’s now the face of a movement that years ago spawned organizations such as Families Against Mandatory Minimums, and her plight has galvanized newly minted outrage from people who are facing punishments that don’t fit their crimes.
As a victim, it’s easy to empathize with Alexander. She faced being separated from her children for 20 years and would have missed seeing her toddler and twins grow up just because she fired a bullet into a wall in a moment of desperation.
But if Alexander—who, unlike Colvin, is 33 and not 15—winds up back in jail because of foolish behavior, then the movement will have to wait for another icon.
Too much is riding on this for her to not understand why she can’t let that happen.