Hung Up on 'Stand Your Ground'

The absence of a duty to retreat does not explain the outcome of Michael Dunn's murder trial.

At the center of the case against Michael Dunn is a disappearing shotgun. The middle-aged software developer claims 17-year-old Jordan Davis threatened to kill him with it during an argument over loud music at a Jacksonville, Florida, gas station in November 2012. But police never found a gun, and no witness reported seeing one.

It seems at least one juror nevertheless found Dunn's story plausible, since his trial ended last week without a verdict on the murder charge related to his shooting of Davis. But it is hard to see how that outcome can be attributed to Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law, which has been widely blamed for hanging the jury.

The jurors did agree that Dunn was guilty of attempted second-degree murder when he fired at the Dodge Durango in which Davis was riding with three other teenagers. Under Florida's mandatory minimum sentencing rules for crimes involving a firearm, Dunn faces at least 20 years in prison for the attempted murder counts and a related charge, and his prison term could be as long as 75 years if he is required to serve the sentences consecutively.

Prosecutors plan to try Dunn again on the murder charge connected to his shooting of Davis. But there is no evidence that their failure to win a conviction the first time around had anything to do with the fact that Florida does not impose a duty to retreat on people who are attacked in public places, which is the essence of "stand your ground."

Dunn's lawyer did mention that aspect of the law during his closing argument, and it was mentioned again to the jury as part of the standard instruction for a homicide case in which the defendant claims he acted in self-defense. But it did not come up during any other part of the trial, and its relevance is not at all obvious.

Confronted by an angry, shotgun-wielding teenager who had just threatened to kill him, could Dunn simply have gotten into his car and driven away? Maybe. Could he have done so safely, which is a standard condition for the duty to retreat? Probably not.

Given the fishy elements of Dunn's story—the unseen shotgun he never mentioned to his girlfriend, the fact that the teenagers did not shoot back, his failure to call the police—it is surprising that the jurors hung on the murder charge, especially since they could have convicted him of second-degree murder or manslaughter instead of first-degree murder, which requires premeditation. But critics of what The New York Times calls "Florida's expansive self-defense statutes" do not cite any special feature of state law that explains the jurors' disagreement.

Instead the critics tend to focus, as the Times does, on the challenge of deciding whether Dunn reasonably believed he faced a deadly threat that could be neutralized only by shooting Davis. That sort of challenge is not unique to Florida or limited to "stand your ground" states.

The reasonable-belief standard was part of Florida's law before the state legislature eliminated the duty to retreat in 2005, and it is part of self-defense laws in states that New York Times editors no doubt consider more enlightened, such as New YorkNew Jersey, and Connecticut. This standard is not some crazy idea invented by Florida gun nuts; it is the conventional approach in the United States.

As with the George Zimmerman trial, which ended in an acquittal last summer and had even less to do with "stand your ground," the Times has insisted from the beginning that the Dunn case is "another test of Florida's broad self-defense law." Having said that over and over again, the Times ran a post-verdict "news analysis" under the headline "Self-Defense Law Hung Over Florida Jury."

How much evidence did the Times offer to back up that assertion? As much as Michael Dunn offered to back up his claim that Jordan Davis had a shotgun.

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  • Doctor Whom||

    Somewhere in Florida, something bad just happened. I blame SYG.

  • UnCivilServant||

    The state failed to retreat when faced with a hurricane! The swamp turned over because of SYG!

  • Auric Demonocles||

    I blame Pro Lib.

  • Floridian||

    I'm MY amerikkka the judge should have the power to override that RACIST jury to convict this rat fucking teabagger of violating that child's civil rights and slap him with a super murder charge and hang him in the streets or at least retry him at ever level of government until they get it right!

    /race hustlers

  • ||

    I have yet to hear a single critic of SYG laws argue in good faith.

    I wonder if that is because they are anti-gun, anti-self defense shits who think that when you are attacked you should submit and sacrifice yourself for the collective?

  • UnCivilServant||

    You really have to wonder? I thought it was self-evident.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Self-defense is icky! In my neighborhood, we don't have to do that. Everyone is pleasant and the HOA rules preserve our property values.

  • sarcasmic||

    when you are attacked you should submit and sacrifice yourself for the collective?

    I don't think it's that so much as their failure to see a distinction between self defense and vigilante justice.

    They feel that using force is a job exclusively for agents of the government. So if you use force to defend yourself, you're taking justice into your own hands.

    Thus self defense equals vigilante justice.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    You know, if we're so hell-bent on recreating the Watchmen, then can we at least have the phase were people run through the city with masks and gadgets first?

  • Auric Demonocles||

    Lol. "The reaaal heros will be out of a job!"

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    Speaking of not arguing in good faith, a duty to retreat does not imply that you have to "submit and sacrifice yourself".

  • Acosmist||

    What is this I don't even

  • UnCivilServant||

    *I hit submit too soon.

    ... After all, they glorifiy victims and victimization and seek ways of defining themselves as such. How can they stand somone who refuses to be victimized? Or laws that permit someone to avoid that 'vaunted' fate?

  • UnCivilServant||

    ** And Brooksed the reply. Now I just have to SF a link and my morning screwups are complete.

  • Night Elf Mohawk||

    The rare pre-8AM hat trick.

  • ||

    Coffee.

  • Almanian!||

    Needz moar POEZ LAW to really cover all the bases

  • Swiss Servator, mehr Käse!||

    As a Fellow of the H&R Typographical Error Societee, let me be clear - NEEDZ MOAR TYPOS to be fully f'ed up.

  • Atanarjuat||

    On DL Hughley's radio show the other day, he said "this verdict proves that you can do anything you want to a black man in this country." Uh, yeah, I guess if you don't mind spending the rest of your life in prison you can do anything to anyone.

    The silver lining to all of this, for us Floridians, is the NY Times is basically saying to its progressive audience "Florida is like Lord of the Flies and is a place to be avoided".

  • Rich||

    "this verdict proves that you can do anything you want to a black man in this country."

    Hughley's first book, I Want You to Shut the Fuck Up: How the Audacity of Dopes Is Ruining America, was published on July 31, 2012

    Pot, *black*.

  • ||

    DL's just mad because no one will ever confuse him with Lawrence Fishburn.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    If he hadn't shot into the fleeing van, there would only have been the charge of murder, and he would have gotten away with it.

  • Calidissident||

    Were the other kids in the van not black? He hasn't even gotten away with murder yet, it was a mistrial, so he can be retried. And if the prosecution is smart and just goes for second-degree murder this time, he'll probably get convicted.

  • Acosmist||

    If someone had killed Hitler, WWII wouldn't have happened.

    Counterfactuals are fun, let's do some more

  • IamNotEvil||

    If Hitler had died in WWI then Germany would have won WWII.

  • optimusratiostultum||

    communism is great, when it doesn't lead to genocide.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    Fact is, if Stand Your Ground weren't law this guy would have been convicted. It would be hard to convince a jury, even to the point of inducing reasonable doubt, that he had no opportunity to retreat from a FLEEING vehicle.

    This is why SYG laws are a bad idea in practice, even if the principle is appealing. It offers an easier opportunity for people who commit murder to falsely claim self-defense, while not really affording any benefit to people who truly are forced to act in self-defense.

  • Calidissident||

    He was convicted for shooting at the moving vehicle. We don't know why the jury didn't convict him of the murder charge. It's possible that they disagreed on the degree of murder. Or maybe someone found his story plausible (hopefully the former). But I'm pretty sure the vehicle wasn't moving when he first shot and killed the kid.

  • optimusratiostultum||

    by using this logic one can say that the fifth amendment is bad in practice even if the principle is appealing.because it protects criminals but innocent people don't "need" protection.

    SYG law did not apply here because he WAS found guilty, the jury was hung only on whether to consider it 1st or 2nd degree murder which had nothing to do with the SYG law but the issue was instead premeditation, prosecution said he had it, defense said he didn't jury could not decide, hence hung jury.

  • Tulpa (LAOL-VA)||

    Another curious thing is that defenders of the SYG law seem to spend most of their time pointing out that it doesn't apply to Zimmerman's situation, or Dunn's situation, etc. Which would lead an objective person to wonder, what legitimate act of self-defense would it apply to? Why do we have it on the books if it does nothing to help true self-defenders? So far it's been used mostly by gangbangers who kill people in turf wars. Is this the target demographic?

  • ||

    *Are you really saying inner-city youths shouldn't be able to defend themselves?*

    Kidding aside, I only advocate SYG in opposition to DTR. In cases where I think "Aha, SYG!" (warning shots, on personal property, etc.) the SYG defense gets tossed. Repeal or negate DTR and I, equally, see no need for SYG. But I think it's more of a thematic "Florida's not New York!" thing where neither Florida nor New York will re-write laws for the other.

    Heaven forbid Judges, Juries, and Lawyers decide things on a case-by-case basis.

  • wwhorton||

    Are you serious? SYG is used to acquit defendants in Florida pretty frequently who are, as you say, "true self-defenders", and proportionately more often in cases where the defendant is black. It has not been used, as you so charmingly put it, mostly by "gangbangers". And, if you're not being deliberately obtuse, an example of an appropriate SYG defense is, for instance, in a case where a woman shot from her doorway at a man who had previously tried to break into her home, left, returned, and was advancing up the driveway. That's one. I'd be happy to give you more, if you're actually interested.

  • Jackand Ace||

    In just your last article a day ago, Jacob, you said about this kind of event:

    "...we should recognize the folly of trying to explain the inexplicable or prevent the unpreventable."

    So why even write about this? According to you, its unpreventable anyway, so we may as well just get used to it and stop the whining. Right?

  • Michael Ejercito||

    First-degree murder requires proof of premeditation, and the jury was hung on that.

  • BillEverman||

    Comparisons with this case and the Zimmerman case are fine, but I think the really interesting comparison is with this case and the idiot LA cops who shot at the women delivering newspapers in that pickup truck. You know, the one that didn't match the description of the one being driven by Christopher Dorner? This guy gets twenty years for shooting at a vehicle truck that was moving away from him; they actually shot people!

    I know Dunn is responsible for the death of one of the people in the vehicle, but he was not found guilty of murdering that person. He was found guilty of attempted murder for shooting at the vehicle as it was fleeing, and that is what he will serve time for.

    The cops will get "retraining"--probably only because they were stupid enough to be in one another's line of fire while shooting the peasants, while this guy gets twenty years for missing the people he was shooting at.

    And at least he claims to have seen a gun.

  • wwhorton||

    I hope your point is that the LEOs in LA should receive at least the same sentence as Dunn...

  • optimusratiostultum||

    how about the asshole in NM who shot at the van full of kids?

  • avocats||

    How did the prosecution charge premeditated murder? This is classic second-degree murder. I'm confused. And then how did the jury find guilty of attempted murder? THat attempt was successful, wasn't it?

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