While George Zimmerman was being found not guilty of the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin over the weekend, with self-defense being a central determinant in Zimmerman’s not guilty plea and acquittal, in another high-profile Florida shooting incident you may not be as familiar with, Marissa Alexander, an African American woman, was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2012 for shooting what she described as warning shots into a wall during a confrontation with her husband.
Alexander’s lawyers also claimed self-defense in the case, stating that her husband had a history of abuse in their relationship, and thus they invoked Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives people the right to use lethal force if they feel their life is threatened – ultimately what was central to Zimmerman’s acquittal.
However, the jury in Alexander’s case sided with prosecutors who argued that her actions were not in self-defense, sending her to 20 years in prison.
Let me repeat that, she fired warning shots in a wall, not even at the husband, to fend off his abuse – abuse that he had a history of; and she gets 20 years in prison?
I’m no attorney so, please riddle me that!
Apparently, there’s a so-called “10-20-Life” law in Florida, enacted in 1999, that states that if a firearm is discharged (even if it doesn’t hurt or kill anyone, as is the case with Alexander), the person responsible will receive a 20-year minimum sentence, and if the discharge does result in injury or death of another, the minimum sentence is 25-years to life.
I don’t have the exact statistics in front of me, but, unfortunately, circumstances like this, that Marissa Alexander finds herself in (being prosecuted for defending herself against an abusive spouse/boyfriend) aren’t so uncommon.
Just enter a Google search with the terms “woman prosecuted for defending herself against abusive husband,” and once you get through the first couple of pages or so, filled primarily with Marissa Alexander links, you’ll find a few more past cases.
In thinking about Alexander’s case, I was immediately reminded of this 2011 documentary titled Crime After Crime, that premiered in competition at the Sundance Film Festival that year, which told the story of Debbie Peagler, also an African American woman, as well as a survivor of brutal domestic violence, who was incarcerated for her connection to the murder of her abuser – a boyfriend who beat her and forced her into prostitution.
The short version the story goes… Debbie and her boyfriend, Oliver Wilson, met in the late 1970′s, when she was just 15 years old. Fearing for her life, Debbie did Wilson’s bidding for years. She tried to escape, but each time was forced back with violence and death threats. Wilson even sexually assaulted Debbie’s six-year-old daughter years later.
Desperate, Debbie eventually turned to two male acquaintances (two Crips gang members who were friends of her mother) for help, who then beat up Wilson, which was what she asked them to do, if only to scare him straight; but they went one step further and strangled him to death.
In 1983, Debbie and the two men were prosecuted; she was surprisingly charged with first-degree murder. During the trial, her public defender reportedly didn’t even bother to present any evidence of the physical, sexual and emotional abuse Debbie suffered for years. And, as a result, Deborah was forced into entering a guilty plea, after the DA threatened her with the death penalty.
After spending 26 long years in prison, a pair of rookie attorneys cut their teeth on her case, attracting global attention to this murky, troubled intersection of domestic violence and criminal justice, as they worked to set her free, and they were eventually successful, thankfully!
In August 2009, Debbie Peagler was finally released, thanks, in part, to then California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, after spending almost 30 years in prison.
However, unfortunately, in February 2009, Peagler was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, and, sadly, less than a year after she won her freedom, she died of lung cancer while at home with her family on June 8, 2010.
She barely got a chance to enjoy that freedom. She was just 51 years old.
Through the perseverance of her young attorneys (and Peagler herself), they were able to bring to light long-lost witnesses, new testimonies from the men who actually committed the murder, and proof that some of the evidence against her that was submitted into testimony, was false, and/or had been tampered with.
Their investigation ultimately attracted global attention to other victims of wrongful incarceration and abuse.
The 2011 documentary, which took five years to make, was directed by Yoav Potash, and was picked up by Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network (television distribution rights), soon after its Sundance premiere. It saw a limited theatrical release that year, before heading to home video (you can find it on DVD currently).
In early 2012, ro*co productions, a partner of Oprah’s OWN Documentary Club, announced that it would be partnering with 1492 Pictures (producers of The Help and Harry Potter) to adapt the award-winning Crime After Crime, as a scripted feature film.
No word on whether that’s still in the works, and if it is, at what stage it currently is.
The documentary played the international film festival circuit and won numerous awards along the way.
You should watch it if you haven’t. It’s not streaming on Netflix, but, as I said, it’s available on DVD, either as a rental, or purchase.
And, by the way, a Facebook page has been set up in support of Marissa Alexander’s freedom. The page can be found HERE.
Below, watch the trailer for Crime After Crime: