A recent criminal case – the People of the State of Florida vs. Michael Dunn – raised the heat in the already-sizzling argument over Florida’s notorious “Stand Your Ground” Law. Though that law was not formally used by the Defense, it was referred to in the Defense’s closing argument and in the Jury Instructions, so it “bled” into the case. Today one of the incident’s participants is dead and another is a convicted felon and the “Stand Your Ground” debate rages on.
The Prosecution and the Defense agree on some facts. On November 23, 2012, a white 47-year-old software developer named Michael Dunn and his fiancée, Ronda Rouer, attended Dunn’s son’s wedding reception, at which Dunn drank 3 or 4 rum and cokes. After the reception, Dunn and Rouer stopped at a convenience store in Jacksonville, Florida. Dunn parked his car next to a red Dodge Durango carrying 4 black teenaged boys who were playing loud music in the Durango. One of those 4 teenagers was 17-year-old Jordan Davis, a resident of Jacksonville, who had never been in trouble with the law, who worked part-time at Winn-Dixie and who planned to join the Armed Forces after his high school graduation. While both Dunn and Rouer were in the parked car, Dunn spoke to Rouer about his dislike of the teenagers’ music. Rouer claims that Dunn called it “thug music” while he claimed he may have said “rap crap.” Dunn remained in the vehicle while Rouer entered the convenience store to purchase wine. As he sat in the vehicle, Dunn asked the teenagers to lower the music’s volume, which they initially did; however, the volume was then raised again to a high volume. Dunn then confronted the teenagers about the music’s high volume, and hostile words were exchanged between Dunn and one or more of the teenagers. While Rouer was still in the convenience store, Dunn fired 10 gunshots from a semi-automatic pistol at the teenagers. The gunshots were fired in 3 bursts: 3 shots; a 1-second pause, then 4 shots; a 6 or 7-second pause, then 3 final shots. The gunshots hit the Durango 9 times, also striking Jordan Davis 3 times and killing him. The fatal bullet entered Davis’ right side, perforated the rib cage, traveled through the liver, diaphragm, and aorta, continued upward to the right lung, and ultimately exited in Jordan Davis’ arm pit. According to the trajectories of shots and wounds, Davis was leaning away from Dunn when he was shot.
Hearing shots, Rouer quickly left the convenience store, Dunn told her to get into the car, which she did, and then Dunn drove away. The Durango had already driven away during the 3rd burst of gunshots, parking in the adjacent plaza’s parking lot. A witness in the adjacent plaza parking lot stated that two African-American males got out of the parked Durango but they did not hide, remove, or stow anything while outside the car. They were outside for about a minute, then reentered the Durango and drove back to the convenience store. Several individuals, including Davis’ companions, called 911 within minutes of the incident. At 7:39 pm, the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Department received a call of “shots fired” and an all-points bulletin was issued alerting police to be on the lookout for victims and suspects. Police arrived at the convenience store to find a lifeless Jordan Davis and hysterically upset companions.
Meanwhile, Dunn and Rouer arrived at their motel, ordered and ate pizza, drank more alcohol, walked their dog and slept. At approximately 7:00 am the next day, Rouer learned through televised news that one of the teenagers – Jordan Davis – was killed. Dunn and Rouer then drove back to their home, approximately 175 miles away in Brevard County. At no time did either of them call 911 and, according to Rouer, at no time did Dunn mention seeing any weapon in the teenagers’ possession. Unfortunately for Dunn, a patron of the convenience store saw his license plate and informed police. Dunn’s vehicle was traced to him, a high-alert arrest warrant for murder and attempted murder was issued, 3 officers traveled to Dunn’s home and arrested him 1 day after the incident.
Under police questioning, Dunn first claimed that during the confrontation with the teenagers, he saw a stick or a gun barrel appear in the Durango, was in fear for his life, retrieved the gun from his car’s glove compartment and fired into the Durango in self-defense. Furthermore, during his testimony at trial, Dunn claimed that Davis was “mean-spirited,” swore at Dunn, called him a “cracker” and said that he was going to kill Dunn. Dunn also testified that Davis showed 4 inches of a shotgun barrel. Dunn told the jury “I was in fear of my life.” Dunn testified that he said they were going to kill him and he grabbed the gun. (A witness who was walking out of the convenience store at that time testified that Dunn actually said, “You are not going to talk to me like that.” Big difference). Dunn testified that he grabbed the loaded gun from the glove compartment and fired: shots while the Durango was next to his car; shots after the Durango pulled out and behind his car, forming a “T” shape with his car; and shots as the Durango sped away from him. While Dunn claimed pure self-defense, the Prosecution claimed that Dunn committed premeditated murder, shooting at unarmed teenagers who disrespected him and killing Davis as a result.
Dunn’s attorney stated that he “strategically” did not use Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which would have entailed a pre-trial hearing to see whether Dunn should be immune from criminal prosecution. However, during his closing argument, Dunn’s attorney asked the jury to consider Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, as well as “pure” self-defense, in their determinations. In addition, the Court’s instructions to the jury included the Stand Your Ground Law. Consequently, though the Stand Your Ground Law was not formally used as a defense, it “bled” into the trial and into the jury’s deliberations.
On February 15, 2014, after 32 hours of jury deliberation, Dunn was convicted of 3 counts of attempted murder and 1 count of shooting or throwing a deadly missile into an occupied vehicle; however, the most serious charge of 1st degree murder resulted in a mistrial due to the jury’s deadlock about that charge and its lesser included charges. Dunn could be sentenced to up to 20 years per attempted murder conviction (which reportedly must run consecutively), plus up to 15 years for the 4th felony count, totaling as many as 75 years for the 4 felony convictions. Furthermore, Assistant State Attorney Angela Corey announced the Prosecution’s intention to retry Dunn for 1st degree murder. Meanwhile, the Defense declared its intention to appeal the 4 felony convictions.
How could a jury deadlock about 1st degree murder but find Dunn guilty of 3 attempted murder counts? The jury would not grant interviews after the trial, so we are left to speculate. I do not personally believe that any of the shots were fired in self-defense. However, the jury’s differing results seem to arise from 3 factors: the theory of self-defense; the 3 separate gunfire bursts; and the timing/placement of Davis’ wounds. According to the theory of self-defense, you are allowed to fight back and even kill when being attacked or threatened or you reasonably fear serious injury or death; however, when your aggressor retreats, you are no longer fighting in self-defense. During a single incident, you could shift from acting in “legitimate self-defense” to “unlawful attack” in seconds. Knowing that theory, look at Dunn’s 3 gunfire bursts: the first burst occurred when the Durango was next to him and he might legitimately fear; the second burst occurred when the Durango was behind him and he might legitimately fear; but the third burst occurred when the Durango was driving away – when it was retreating – and he did not legitimately fear. Finally, Davis was fatally wounded in the side as he was leaning away from Dunn, probably during the first one or two gunfire bursts. When Dunn first fired into the Durango and literally killed Davis, he may have been acting in self-defense; therefore, the jury deadlocked on the 1st degree murder charge. However, when Dunn fired at the fleeing teenagers, he was not acting in self-defense; therefore, he was convicted of 3 counts of attempted murder (1 for each of Davis’ companions).
How could Dunn have committed premeditated murder of Jordan Davis when the argument and shooting took only seconds? Easily. The intent required for premeditation could take deliberate planning: you might decide to kill me, then go to assassins’ school, then buy the gun and bullets, then stalk me to learn my daily routine, then plot the ideal time to shoot me, then carry out your plan and shoot me. However, the intent required for premeditation could also be formulated in the blink of an eye: I decide to shoot at you, I immediately do so and BAM-YOU’RE-DEAD. So, the element of premeditation was easily formulated by Dunn and proven in this case.
Another interesting point of discussion is whether Dunn reasonably feared for his safety at any time during the incident. I do not believe that he reasonably feared those teenagers. I do believe he may have unreasonably feared them. Why? Simple: because they’re black and he’s a racist. For the moment, forget about explicit racism vs. implicit racism. This guy is utterly, unabashedly, unapologetically racist. While jailed before trial, Dunn wrote several letters evincing explicit racism. One of his jailhouse letters states, “The jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs. This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these (expletive) idiots, when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.” Dunn also wrote, “The more I get to know those people [referring to African Americans] the more prejudice[d] I become.” Here’s my personal favorite: Dunn referred to “how racist the blacks are up here.” Oh my, yes: Mr. Dunn’s sensibilities are offended by the racism of those against whom he is clearly racist. Mind you, Dunn did not write these comments in his private home office with the reasonable expectation of privacy; he wrote them in jail, where everything you do and say is watched, and while he was awaiting trial for shooting at black teenagers. (“Ouch,” said defense lawyers across the nation).
While admiring Dunn’s explicit racism, let’s throw “implicit racism” into the mix. What is implicit racism? It’s stereotyping: for example, you encounter 4 teenagers of your own race and feel A-OK but you encounter 4 teenagers of a different race and feel fear. The fear can be real but also racist, stereotypical, irrational. What does that do to a justice system? Whether explicit or implicit or both, should someone’s racism – for example, a white guy’s real-but-erroneous fear of unarmed black teenagers – legally excuse him for shooting at them and killing one of them? When all is said and done, who was the real thug here? It was the armed white guy who confronted unarmed black teenagers, argued with them, then repeatedly shot at them and killed one of them.
[Note from HandelontheLaw.com: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information cannot be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither HandelontheLaw.com, or any of its affiliates, shall have any liability stemming from this article.]
Note from HandelontheLaw.com: This article is to be used as an educational guide only and should not be interpreted as a legal consultation. Readers of this article are advised to seek an attorney if a legal consultation is needed. Laws may vary by state and are subject to change, thus the accuracy of this information can not be guaranteed. Readers act on this information solely at their own risk. Neither the author, handelonthelaw.com, or any of its affiliates shall have any liability stemming from this article.