As the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin trial did last year, Saturday’s verdict in the Michael Dunn-Jordan Davis trial has brought deep soul-searching about race in America.
Guns are an element in the two Florida cases, of course. Zimmerman and Dunn legally carried firearms when each shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, although neither their jobs nor anything in particular about their lives seemed to require it.
The constitutional right to bear arms and Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” self defense law were elements in both cases. But it was the race of the victims and of the shooters that has drawn the most attention during and after the trial of Michael Dunn this past week.
It was obvious that the jury – themselves reflective of American society (four white women, two black women, four white men, an Asian woman and a Hispanic man) – was struggling over the charges against Dunn.
It took them 30 hours over a four-day period, during which time they sent questions to Judge Russell Healey, to reach a verdict. And even then, they could not agree on the most serious charge – first-degree murder in the killing of 17 year-old Jordan Davis in November 2012.
Still, as his lawyer acknowledged later, it is likely that the 47 year-old Dunn will spend the rest of his life in prison. He was convicted of three counts of attempted second-degree murder in firing 10 rounds from his 9 millimeter pistol at an SUV carrying Mr. Davis and three other teens. That adds up to at least 60 years in prison.
But the irony of the case – injustice, critics say – is that a mistrial has been declared on the specific charge relating to the one person killed in a dispute over a loud car stereo parked in front of a Jacksonville convenience store that quickly escalated into argument, taunts, verbal threats, and then gunfire. There’s similarity here to the Trayvon Martin case in which George Zimmerman was acquitted of charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter.
In letters he sent from jail while awaiting trial, Dunn (who is white) voices a problem he seems to have regarding race, or at least black culture and attitudes as he sees it.
“This jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs,” he wrote. “This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these … idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior…. The more time I am exposed to these people, the more prejudiced against them I become.”
In particular, he seemed outraged at what he called the “thug culture” of rap music reflected in the way many young black men express themselves.
“Jordan Davis didn’t have a weapon. He had a big mouth,” prosecutor John Guy said during closing arguments, referring to the verbal exchange in the parking lot and the fact that no weapon was found in the black teens’ car. “That defendant wasn’t gonna stand for it, and it cost Jordan Davis his life.”
Prosecutors suggested that Dunn was more interested in defending his honor than defending his life.
After the verdict, Benjamin Crump, the attorney for the family of Trayvon Martin, told CNN: "As black males and black people in America, and other minorities and Hispanics as well, it is somehow, if you kill us, the justice system isn't equal. It is almost as if your life is less valuable.”
“The rules are different,” Mr. Crump said. “If it were equal, I believe Michael Dunn would have been convicted of first-degree murder."
“Stand your ground” laws aren’t as egregious as the worst of Jim Crow, writes Jamelle Bouie, a staff writer at The Daily Beast. “But there's no denying that it harkens to a time when you could shoot first and never ask questions, as long as the victim was a black person.”
“I think I speak for many black people when I say that's terrifying,” he writes.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, a national correspondent at The Atlantic, puts it more starkly.
“I wish I had something more to say about the fact that Michael Dunn was not convicted for killing a black boy,” wrote Mr. Coates, noting that he has a son. “Except I said it after George Zimmerman was not convicted of killing a black boy. Except the parents of black boys already know this. Except the parents of black boys have long said this, and they have been answered with mockery.”
“We cannot protect our children because racism in America is not merely a belief system but a heritage, and the inability of black parents to protect their children is an ancient tradition,” Coates wrote. “I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting to which, likely until the end of our days, we unerringly return.”
Like Trayvon Martin’s parents, Jordan Davis’ parents expressed more sorrow than anger in learning that their son's killer had not been convicted of murder.
Lucia McBath, Davis' mother, said her family is "so very happy to have just a little bit of closure."
"We are so grateful for the charges that have been brought against him, we are so grateful for the truth, we are so grateful that the jurors were able to understand the common sense of it all," Mrs. McBath said. "It's sad for Mr. Dunn that he will live the rest of his life in that sense of torment. I will pray for him, and I've asked my family to pray for him."
Although it’s unlikely that Dunn will ever be a free man again, prosecutors say they will retry him on the first-degree murder charge on behalf of the family of Jordan Davis, who would have turned 19 on Sunday.
Said State Attorney Angela Corey, “Justice for Jordan Davis is as important as it is for any victim.”