When the House considers a bill to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) this week, it might have to contend with the details of another Florida shooting that has ties to the Trayvon Martin case, and has prompted one House Democrat to charge that Florida’s “stand your ground” laws are not strong enough to protect women.
On Friday, a Florida judge sentenced Marissa Alexander to 20 years in prison for firing a gun in the direction of her husband after he threatened to kill her, which the defense has said was a warning shot. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) argued that this sentence is excessive given that no one was hurt, and that it stands in stark contrast to the delays in arresting George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Martin in February.
Brown and other House Democrats were successful in March and April in calling attention to the Martin shooting by calling for Zimmerman’s arrest, and may well use the Alexander case this week as a justification to call for changes to the GOP bill. In the Martin case, Democrats argued that police failed to arrest Zimmerman because the victim was black and presumed to be acting in the wrong.
Democrats could use the Alexander case as evidence that when a black woman is the shooter, she too is presumed to be in the wrong, even when no one is hurt. Brown on Friday was already making these arguments in reaction to the 20-year sentence.
“The Florida criminal justice system has sent two clear messages today,” Brown said. “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. A mere 50 miles away, in Sanford, Fla., a white man who shot a black teenager and claimed self-defense was not even arrested until community leaders and people around the world expressed their outrage,” she said, referring to the Martin case.
“I have spoken to countless lawyers and they have yet to discover any cases in Florida where an African-American was able to successfully use the ‘stand your ground’ … defense in a hearing,” Brown continued. “Another step I will take is to call for a study into racial disparities in the application of this law.”
The 20-year sentence was handed down on the same day that House Republicans announced they would take up a GOP bill to reauthorize VAWA. But Democrats might not get a chance to amend that bill with language relating to Florida or any other issue — Republicans are expected to bring up the bill under a closed rule that does not allow amendments.
The GOP bill, H.R. 4970, contains many of the same elements as a Senate-passed bill to reauthorize VAWA, but the bills are not identical. For example, the House bill does not increase the number of visas that illegal immigrants can access if they are victims of domestic abuse. The Senate bill expands the availability of these visas, but Republicans have said that expansion would increase the deficit.
More than a month after the Martin shooting, Florida named Angela Corey as a special prosecutor. Corey charged Zimmerman in April with second-degree murder.
Corey is also the prosecutor in the Alexander case, and according to FlagerLive in Florida, Corey said Alexander does not have a valid “stand your ground” defense because she could have escaped rather than firing. Corey reportedly offered Alexander a plea bargain leading to a three-year sentence, which was rejected.
— This story was updated at 10:59 a.m. to add details about the House VAWA bill.