7:30 pm UPDATE: The jury in the “loud music” case has found Michael Dunn guilty of three counts of attempted second-degree murder for firing his gun at a car of teenagers. But jury members could not reach a verdict on the charge of first-degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Mr. Dunn faces 20-60 years in prison. Sentencing will take place next month.
The murder trial of Michael Dunn in the death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis may seem to many Americans like an open and shut case. But not to the Jacksonville jury now deep into its fourth day deliberating the fate of the 47-year-old computer programmer and gun collector.
After getting yelled at for telling a group of black teenagers to turn down their “rap crap” outside a Jacksonville convenience store in November 2012, Mr. Dunn, a white man, pulled out a gun and pumped nine bullets into an SUV, killing one of the teens. He then drove back to a motel room and walked his dog before turning himself into police the next day.
The case bears resemblance to the George Zimmerman trial last summer, where a neighborhood watch captain faced second degree murder charges for shooting to death Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager, after pegging Mr. Martin as a potential thief.
In that case, a six-woman jury struggled several days before returning a not guilty verdict. The Dunn case is now in front of a 12-person jury, a group facing a slightly different set of facts. A key one: George Zimmerman could show he took a beating before firing a single shot at Trayvon; Dunn never received a scratch, claiming only that he saw what he thought was the tip of a shotgun through a window before firing.
The case also has stark racial overtones, as did the Zimmerman trial. Dunn has penned several letters and Internet missives blaming “thug culture” for the shooting. In trying to keep the trial fair, the judge, Russell Healey, allowed only passing references to racially-charged language. Dunn has maintained his critiques are cultural, not racial.
But that’s not how the parents of Trayvon, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, saw it. They wrote in a statement that Davis' killing was another reminder that in Florida, "racial profiling and stereotypes" may serve as the basis for illegitimate fear "and the shooting and killing of young teenagers."
In an interview last week, political scientist Georgie Ciccariello-Maher of Drexel University, in Philadelphia, told the Monitor that he doesn’t see the case as a slam-dunk for the prosecution.
Ultimately, he said, the jury will have to address the level of threat against Dunn, an aspect which easily becomes clouded by racial and cultural stereotypes.
“The way blackness works in the United States is that even to appear as a black person is to be violent, to be too loud, too visible,” he says, adding that to many Americans the new breed of self-defense laws are “an attempt to segregate all space and public areas to such a degree that any movement outside of accepted bounds is justification for a violent response.”
While their deliberations are not known, the jury is definitely wrestling with the law. Florida has pioneered a new era of self-defense laws that have basically jettisoned any need for someone who feels they’re being attacked to try to get away from the situation.
Attorney Cory Strolla argued that justifiable self-defense simply means that someone who feels under threat in a public area, even if they’re never attacked, is justified in employing deadly force.
"My client did not wait to become that victim; my client did not wait to either get assaulted by a weapon or have someone potentially pull a trigger," he said. "Now, does it sound irrational? Of course it sounds irrational. But have you ever been in that situation?”
Police say they never found a gun in the teens’ SUV, but Mr. Strolla suggested that doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. The defense’s bottom line was that Dunn felt threatened and defended himself lawfully.
Prosecutors have pointed to Dunn’s decision to not call police after the shooting as well as his failure to mention seeing a gun to his girlfriend for almost a day as evidence that the shooting was premeditated. They also pointed out that three of the nine shots were fired into the rear of the fleeing SUV.
“This defendant, when he pulled up next to that SUV, his blood started to boil," prosecutor Erin Wolfson said in her closing argument. "He didn’t like the music that was coming out of the car next to him. He got angrier and angrier as that music irritated him. This defendant went crazy. He got angry at the fact that a 17-year-old kid decided not to listen to him…. When he pulled out his gun, he shot to kill."
An at-times tearful Dunn took the stand on Tuesday in his defense.
"He’s showing me a gun and he’s threatening me," Dunn told the jury. "I was in fear for my life and I was probably stunned…. This is the point where my death is imminent. He's coming to kill me. He's coming to beat me."
After 20 hours, jurors returned to the courtroom on Saturday morning with three questions, basically asking whether they can tease out issues of self-defense and justifiable deadly force in each of the four counts. Judge Russell Healey said they could.
Dunn is facing one first degree murder charge and three attempted murder charges for firing at the other three teenagers in the SUV.
Jurors are “struggling, obviously, but it's not for want of trying to reconcile all of this," Judge Healey said. "I think we've got some analytical people in there who are trying to do just that – trying to analyze this from every possible angle."
Coming after far more public and media scrutiny, the not-guilty verdict in the Zimmerman case drew only a smattering of protests and isolated rioting.
Nevertheless, police in Duval County, Fla., are getting ready for potential civil unrest if the jury comes back with a not-guilty verdict. Dunn is facing life in prison if found guilty.