The family and friends of Jordan Davis, a black teenager, will have to wait several more months to find out if Michael Dunn, the white man who shot him dead outside a convenience store in Florida in 2012, will be punished for it in his retrial.
Davis and three friends were parked and playing their music loudly when approached by Dunn who asked them to turn it down. An argument ensued and an angry Dunn opened fire killing Davis and nearly hitting two of the other teens. Dunn continued firing even as the vehicle carrying Davis and his friends pulled out to escape the gunfire. No shots were fired back at Dunn who claimed, in his stand-your-ground defense, that he saw Davis with a shotgun. No firearms were found in the Dodge Durango carrying Davis and the others.
The Florida jury in this case appears to have done the best job they could in the circumstances. While they couldn’t agree on whether to find Dunn guilty of the first degree murder of Davis, they did convict him for the attempted murder of the other three who were trying to flee. Even his SYG defense didn’t save him on those counts and Dunn will spend most of the rest of his life in prison, thank goodness.
The fact remains that the prosecution, even with an apparently thoughtful and conscientious jury, could not surmount the challenges of the SYG law on the shooting of Davis despite the facts as recounted by The New York Times:
In the courtroom, Mr. Dunn told the jury he shot Jordan Davis, 17, after the teenager pointed a shotgun at him from the window of a sport utility vehicle, threatened him and then got out of the truck. The two cars were parked side by side in front of a gas station convenience store.
But the prosecution said there was no shotgun: No witness saw one, the three teenagers who were in the vehicle with Mr. Davis said they did not have a shotgun, and the police never found one. While Mr. Dunn fired 10 rounds at the teenagers on Nov. 23, 2012, no one ever shot back.
In these circumstances, it seems reasonable to ask how the jury could fail to reach a consensus on Davis’ murder, even if it was on one of the lesser charges of second degree murder or manslaughter. But as the NYT piece explains:
Under Florida self-defense laws, people can use lethal force and do not have to retreat if they “reasonably believe” it is “necessary” to save their lives or avoid great harm. The jury must, in essence, decide what a “reasonable person” would have done under similar circumstances. “The law takes the position that you have to step into the shoes of the defendant,” said Michael Band, a Miami criminal defense lawyer who was a longtime prosecutor in the city.
In court, it is the prosecutor’s burden to prove that a shooting was not self-defense. Also, whether there was a shotgun is not nearly as important under the law as whether Mr. Dunn believed he saw one and then reacted out of reasonable fear for his life. “If he really believed there was a gun, then he acted appropriately,” Mr. Band said.
So just to be clear, Dunn didn’t have to see Davis with a shotgun to feel his life was threatened but merely imagine he had seen one – or simply say he saw it whether he did or not – in order to mount a credible and likely successful SYG defense.
By any reasonable definition, therefore, it is clear that the Florida legislature has provided a legal get-out-of-jail free card for shooting someone and claiming self-defense. The law’s turbid language renders it difficult bordering on impossible for juries to convict an SYG claimant, particularly if there are no witnesses to contradict the shooter’s version of events. Dunn’s undoing was that there were three others in the Durango and he continued shooting at them as they tried to escape. Had Davis been alone, Dunn would likely not have even been prosecuted.
Many have pointed to race as the key issue in this and other cases such as that of Trayvon Martin and I won’t dispute that it plays a role. However I would argue that the mental state of the shooter has far more relevance. After all, if the teenagers who angered Dunn had been white, how sure can we be that he would have acted differently?
Concealed carry laws are a bad idea because they allow a particularly fearful segment of the population to take their arsenals into public places and jeopardize the safety of the rest of us. Thus armed with their gun and the faux courage it provides, many are willing to suspend common sense and sound judgment by initiating unnecessary confrontations which end with them shooting someone. Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman are prime examples of the breed.
And stand-your-ground laws such as the one in Florida now furnish gun carriers with the legal means to escape or at least minimize punishment for their actions. America is a much less safe place as a result.