Is It Fair That a Florida Mom Received a 20-Year Sentence for Firing ‘Warning Shot’?

This undated family photo provided by Lincoln B. Alexander shows Marissa Alexander purchasing cosmetics in Tampa, Fla. (Photo: AP)

(TheBlaze/AP) — Amid the contentious analysis of the George Zimmerman verdict, which some are saying is indicative of lingering racism in the United States justice system, some are pointing to a similar case in the same state where matters ended quite differently.

Marissa Alexander had never been arrested before she fired a bullet at a wall in 2010 when she felt her estranged husband was threatening her, a move she described as a “warning shot.”  She had already filed a restraining order against him.

Nobody was hurt, but in May a northeast Florida judge was bound by state law to sentence her to 20 years in prison.

The 31-year-old mother of a toddler and 11-year-old twins, Alexander claimed self-defense and tried to invoke Florida’s “stand your ground” law, rejecting plea deals that could have gotten her a much shorter sentence. But a jury found her guilty as charged: aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. And because she fired a gun while committing a felony, Florida’s mandatory-minimum gun law dictated the 20-year sentence.

State Attorney Angela Corey, who also oversaw the prosecution of shooter George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin case, stands by the handling of Alexander’s case.  She maintains the bullet could have ricocheted and hit Alexander’s children, and told the Huffington Post back in May she didn’t believe the woman fired the shot in fear, but in anger.

“You can’t shoot a gun at people,” Corey said at the time. “…What if it had hit someone?”

At the May 11 sentencing, Alexander’s relatives begged Circuit Judge James Daniel for leniency but he said the decision was “out of my hands.”

The state’s “10-20-life” law was implemented in 1999, saying anyone who shows a gun in the commission of certain felonies gets an automatic 10 years in prison. Fire the gun, and it’s an automatic 20 years. Shoot and wound someone, and it’s 25 years to life.

Victor Crist helped to craft the bill, and said Alexander’s sentence — if she truly did fire a warning shot and wasn’t trying to kill her husband — is not what lawmakers wanted.

“We were trying to get at the thug who was robbing a liquor store who had a gun in his possession or pulled out the gun and threatened someone or shot someone during the commission of the crime,” said Crist.

U.S. Rep. Corinne Brown, D-Jacksonville, has been an advocate for Alexander.

After Alexander’s sentencing, she said: “The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today…One is that if women who are victims of domestic violence try to protect themselves, the ‘Stand Your Ground Law’ will not apply to them. … The second message is that if you are black, the system will treat you differently.”

On Aug. 1, 2010, Alexander was working for a payroll software company. She was estranged from her husband, Rico Gray, and had a restraining order against him, even though they’d had a baby together just nine days before. Thinking he was gone, she went to their former home to retrieve the rest of her clothes, family members said.

An argument ensued, and Alexander said she feared for her life when she went out to her vehicle and retrieved the gun she legally owned. She came back inside and ended up firing a shot into the wall, which ricocheted into the ceiling.

Gray testified that he saw Alexander point the gun at him and looked away before she fired the shot. He claims she was the aggressor, and he had begged her to put away the weapon.

Marissa Alexander appears in court on May 11, 2012. (Photo via MSNBC)

A judge threw out Alexander’s “stand your ground” self-defense claim, noting that she could have run out of the house to escape her husband but instead got the gun and went back inside.  Alexander claimed she did try to escape through the garage, but after finding the garage door was jammed, grabbed her gun before going back.

Alexander rejected a plea deal that would have resulted in a three-year prison sentence and chose to go to trial. A jury deliberated 12 minutes before convicting her.

“The irony of the 10-20-life law is the people who actually think they’re innocent of the crime, they roll the dice and take their chances, and they get the really harsh prison sentences,” Newburn said. “Whereas the people who think they are actually guilty of the crime take the plea deal and get out (of prison) well before. So it certainly isn’t working the way it is intended.”

Alexander was also charged with domestic battery four months after the shooting in another assault on Gray, which many said indicated little remorse over the first incident. She pleaded no contest and was sentenced to time served.

Her family says that doesn’t erase the fact that a relatively law-abiding person — a woman with a master’s degree — who was making positive contributions to society will endure prison for two decades over a single violation in which no one was hurt.

“She had a restraining order against him. Now Marissa is incarcerated and he’s not,” said her father, Raoul Jenkins. “I’m wrestling with that in my mind and trying to determine how the system worked that detail out. It’s really frustrating.”

MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry brought up the case over the weekend, asking: “So when the defense says, ‘What would’ve happened if George Zimmerman was black?’ This is the answer.  She shot a ceiling and got twenty years.”

Watch the panel’s entire analysis below, courtesy of MSNBC:

This post has been updated.

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