In an event that should rally advocates of both the Second and Fourteenth Amendments, proponents of racial equality, and feminists everywhere, Melissa Alexander has been granted a retrial. While this is most certainly a step in the right direction, she isn’t free yet. We stand to learn a lot by following the trial of Ms. Alexander, another African-American woman whose life has been unfairly ruined by our justice system. Americans should rally to her defense if they care about equal protection under the law, and highlight this as an example of the honest benefits of laws like Stand Your Ground.
An Appeals Court judge in Florida ruled that Alexander’s prior sentence, 20 years for discharging a firearm, was invalid because “the court erred in declining to grant her immunity from prosecution under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law.” The original “verdict” was reached by the jury in 12 minutes, not through deliberation but as the result of another of Florida’s awkward gun laws, the “10-20-Life” law. This law sets minimum sentencing for gun-related crimes. It’s makes it easy for prosecutors, but it gives judges and juries no real decision-making power in these cases. As a result, defendants receive automatic and harsh sentences in a situation where they fundamentally can’t defend themselves. Alexander claims she fired a warning shot into the air to protect herself from her abusive ex-husband, Rico Gray. Given the restraining order Alexander had on her ex-husband, this mandatory minimum seems inappropriate.
By using the gun to fire a warning shot, Ms. Alexander chose the option with the least amount of violence. The prosecution confirmed that manslaughter would have gotten her time served, and essentially said if Alexander had killed someone with the shot, she would only have received time served. This is the central problem with mandatory minimum sentencing:It essentially removes due process. When we do this, we eliminate the whole point of our legal system. In this case, the Stand Your Ground and 10-20-Life laws are under scrutiny, and the data shows that race is a significant component in determining someone’s guilt. A report by the Tampa Bay Times showed defendants who killed a black person were found not guilty 73% of the time, while those who killed a white person were found not guilty 59% of the time, but no difference in convictions where races were mixed.
While most coverage on the story correctly highlights the perverse relationship between gun control, race, and mandatory minimum sentencing laws, the truth of the case itself is less clear. There is evidence that the “warning shot” story isn’t exactly meshing with some facts: Alexander had been charged with domestic violence against her ex-husband a few months prior, and the bullet ricocheted of the wall and hit the ceiling. What’s unclear is if Gray was standing in the direction of the initial shot, or whose claim about what happened is correct.
That is the point of a trial by jury. Twelve minutes is not a enough time for any jury to honestly decide if a defendant is guilty unless they plead guilty. But when gun control is combined with a justice system skewed unfairly against minorities, you get charges like this. Mandatory minimum sentencing laws have been one point of bipartisan agreement, most vocally opposed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) in the case of the also racially skewed War on Drugs. These efforts, along with Attorney General Eric Holder’s tip toe in the right direction, will need to continue in order to restore the egalitarian American values of a right to a trial by jury, and a right to life and liberty.
Melissa Alexander was a registered gun owner who prevented violence through the proper use of a firearm in a non-combat situation. She is a black woman and a victim of a terribly unjust system. What exactly occurred on the night she fired the warning shot has never been examined by a jury, and she may be guilty of some offenses. But like every other American citizen, whether at home or abroad, she should be afforded a proper trial by jury and a chance to prove her innocence.