JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - A New York attorney well-known for representing battered women in homicide cases is now legal counsel for a Jacksonville woman serving a 20-year sentence for firing a gun in the direction of her husband.
Marissa Alexander, 31, said she fired a “warning shot” into a wall after being threatened by her husband in an incident in 2010, but prosecutors believe the bullet endangered him and his two children.
Michael Dowd, a lawyer who has been representing domestic violence victims since the 1970s, told Reuters he plans to appeal Alexander’s conviction.
“When I saw the facts of this case, they seemed to be as bad as I’d ever seen,” Dowd said. “The system really doesn’t do a great job of protecting battered women, and when they do anything to protect themselves, it turns on them with a ferocity that is seldom seen if, in the reverse, the woman had been killed.”
In a high-profile case in October, Dowd won an acquittal on murder charges in New York for Barbara Sheehan, a domestic violence victim who killed her husband by firing 11 shots with two guns. She was found guilty of a weapons charge and sentenced to five years in prison.
Alexander, a slightly built woman who stands 5-foot-2, said her 245-pound (111 kg) husband, Rico Gray, was moving toward her threateningly when she fired into a kitchen wall. He had previously been convicted on a domestic violence charge for attacking her.
Gray’s two children were at home, in the living room. Prosecutors alleged that the shot endangered Gray and the children.
Prosecutors offered Alexander a plea agreement that included a three-year prison term, but she turned it down. A jury took just 12 minutes to find her guilty of three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Because Alexander fired a gun in the incident, Florida’s “10-20-Life” mandatory-minimum sentencing guidelines required the judge to sentence her to 20 years in prison.
Dowd suggested on Tuesday that Alexander should not have been charged with felonies.
“This is a woman, under the circumstances, who was overcharged,” he said. “She could have even been charged with a misdemeanor — unlawful discharge of a gun.”
He added that the Alexander case “sends a horrific message to victims of domestic violence.”
Dowd has a long history of working against domestic violence. In 1991, he joined the New York State Office for the Prevention of Domestic Violence. He also was the founding director of the Battered Women’s Justice Center at Pace University School of Law in New York, which is now known as the Pace Women’s Justice Center.
Local leaders from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the National Action Network are calling for Florida Governor Rick Scott to pardon Alexander, who is African American.
The groups have asked the governor to create a task force to investigate the “10-20-Life” law, which they say disproportionately affects African Americans.
They also want an existing task force looking into Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law to examine how that statute, which allows people to use deadly force when they believe their lives or safety are threatened, has affected domestic violence victims.
Much of the ire at a prayer vigil on Tuesday in Jacksonville attended by about 100 Alexander supporters was directed at State Attorney Angela Corey, whose office prosecuted Alexander.
Corey is also the prosecutor in the racially charged case of Trayvon Martin, the black 17-year-old who was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, in February by a neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic.
“The justice system, the very judicial branch of our government, has always been where playing fields are leveled, politics, favoritism, prejudice and discrimination are put in check and left outside the courthouse,” Isaiah Rumlin, president of the Jacksonville chapter of the NAACP, said at the prayer vigil.
“However, since Angela Corey’s tenure as state attorney began, true justice has taken a back seat to political gamesmanship,” he said.
Alexander’s case received little attention until after she was convicted. Black leaders and critics of minimum sentencing laws have drawn parallels between Alexander, whose “Stand Your Ground” defense was denied by a judge, and the Sanford case where prosecutors initially did not charge Zimmerman, citing the law.
Zimmerman, who was subsequently charged by Corey with second-degree murder, has said he fired in self-defense when Martin attacked him.
Corey, meanwhile, believes the facts of the Alexander case have been muddied by her supporters.
“We tried 22 murder cases this year in my circuit,” Corey told Reuters in an interview earlier this month. “They’re all tragic. They all have tons of issues in them. Why is this case so different?”
Editing by David Adams and Eric Beech