What happens when an African American female intimate partner violence victim attempts to defend herself after years of domestic terror? She gets slapped with a mandatory minimum 20 years in prison for aggravated assault. Such was the case for Marissa Alexander, a 32 year-old Florida mother of three with no prior criminal record who fired a warning shot in her home after a dispute with her chronically abusive spouse in 2010. No one was injured in the incident.
Stand Your Ground Defense Determined Unjustified
Alexander’s attorneys attempted to invoke Florida’s notorious stand your ground law as a defense but prosecutor Angela Corey, lead prosecutor on the George Zimmerman murder trial, ruled that it was unjustified. For the past year, national outrage over Alexander’s 20 year sentence has been mounting as comparisons between her case and Zimmerman’s abound. However, Zimmerman was acquitted by a jury that was already conditioned to see him as a victim and Trayvon Martin as a criminal. And unlike white female defendants with no prior records, black female defendants with no prior records have no wage of whiteness to insulate them from harsh sentences that are more suitable for career criminals. Commenting on the Alexander case in the Daily Beast, Rita Smith of the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence argues “When a woman or minority is claiming they are defending themselves, they don’t get the benefit of the doubt…Most battered women who kill in self-defense end up in prison. There is a well-documented bias against women [in these cases].” Yet the reality is that black women are three times more likely than white women to be tried, convicted and incarcerated for felony offenses. One in 19 black women will be incarcerated during their lifetimes versus one in 100 white women. Ultimately, black defendants receive longer and harsher sentences than white defendants and are more likely to be given mandatory minimum sentences.
Expectations of Innocence Rarely Accorded Black Abuse Victims
Alexander’s case highlights how expectations of innocence are rarely if ever accorded black female abuse victims in the dominant culture. When it comes to cultural judgments about justifiable defense, stereotypes of violent breeder black women (In 2010, Alexander gave birth to a premature baby after being beaten by her spouse) eclipse any presumption of innocence or reasonableness on the part of the victim. Even in the face of extreme violence, national narratives of proper female victimhood are never extended to black women and the Lifetime cable channel—reigning Middle American pop culture fount of white woman pathos—never comes knocking.
Call to Action
Because mass incarceration and criminalization do not directly affect their largely white constituencies, humanist/secular/atheist organizations are silent on this social justice human rights atrocity in their own backyard. The Black Skeptics Group calls on progressive atheist organizations to support the Free Marissa Alexander campaign. Information on the campaign, volunteer opportunities and upcoming protest actions can be found at Justice 4 Maria or Facebook.