George Graham

Across America, the Law is an Ass

This undated family photo provided by Lincoln B. Alexander shows, Marissa Alexander in her car in Tampa, Fla. Alexander had never been arrested before she fired a bullet at a wall one day in 2010 to scare off her husband when she felt he was threatening her. Nobody got hurt, but this month a northeast Florida judge was bound by state law to sentence her to 20 years in prison. (Lincoln B. Alexander/AP)

People who are accustomed to British, Canadian or Jamaican law, probably shake their heads in befuddlement as they listen to discussions of the George Zimmerman verdict. How is it possible that a man who tracks down and fatally shoots an unarmed boy is acquitted, yet a woman who fires a warning shot to avoid continued abuse by her husband gets 20 years in prison?

The easy answer would be that the woman is black, the boy who was shot is black and the woman who got 20 years is black. But I can’t believe Florida’s lawmakers consciously set out to create a legal system that targets people because of the color of their skin. Sure, the way laws are applied in Florida – and across America – leave no doubt that black Americans are discriminated against. But I wonder whether the legislature actually has the brass to create blatantly discriminatory laws. Especially in this day and age.

Marrissa Alexander, the Florida mother who was sentenced to 20 years for that warning shot, has become a rallying point for protesters infuriated by Zimmerman’s acquittal. As you can see from her photo (above), she is black. Zimmerman is not. But I don’t think the prosecutor or the judge consciously decided to throw the book at Alexander because of her race.

I think Alexander was just another victim of Florida’s asinine laws.

I recall a story in the local newspaper about a man who got 20 years for firing a shot into the ceiling. Some thug had moved into the house he shared with his daughter and was abusing her, and he fired his pistol when the thug refused to leave. That man was white. According to the paper, he got the heavy sentence because he refused a plea deal – as Alexander did.

And I’ve read other stories over the years about harsh punishments meted out to people who harmlessly discharged a firearm – even to some who tried to defend themselves by “displaying a gun in public.”

As some “legal expert” said on TV the other day, if you pull a gun in Florida, you’re better off killing someone with it.

Florida’s laws are obviously a mess. But there’s not much the federal government can do to straighten them out. In America, the states have the right to pass all kinds of dumb laws. As recently as the mid-1960s, Virginia had a law banning inter-racial marriage, for example.

Those of us who have lived in a country with a British legal tradition, assume that courts are bound by “common law,” which embodies a sense of right-and-wrong handed down by past generations.

But covering the courts as a reporter, I don’t recall common law being cited in Florida.

It seems that state courts are subject to no such restraint.  They follow the law as written by state legislatures. And when I consider the nincompoops who run for state office and the greedy monsters who manipulate the political system for gain,  I am surprised that things aren’t even  more screwed up.

Click here for an article on Florida gun laws.

Click here for more on common law.

Click here for more on Marrissa Alexander.

About the author


I am a Jamaican-born writer who has lived and worked in Canada and the United States. I live in Lakeland, Florida with my wife, Sandra, our three cats and two dogs. I like to play golf and enjoy our garden, even though it's a lot of work. Since retiring from newspaper reporting I've written a few books. I also write a monthly column for