Will Michael Dunn's Trial, Unlike George Zimmerman's, Have Something to Do With 'Stand Your Ground'?



The New York Times says the trial of Michael Dunn, the middle-aged software developer who shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis at a Jacksonville gas station in 2012, is not about race so much as "the mechanics of Florida's self-defense laws and how juries apply them." In that respect, the Times says, the case is different from George Zimmerman's 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida. Which is weird, because there was no mention of race in Zimmerman's murder trial, which ended in an acquittal last July, and a juror interviewed afterward said it did not come up during deliberations either.

It seems to me that race may have played a bigger role in Dunn's shooting of Davis, which grew out of an argument over loud music, than it did in Zimmerman's shooting of Martin, which grew out of a violent struggle that Martin seems to have started. It's not just that Dunn is "whiter" than Zimmerman, a Hispanic with an Afro-Peruvian great-grandfather, but that his perception of Davis' allegedly violent intent may have been colored by the fact that he was confronting a bunch of black teenagers (Davis and his friends). In Zimmerman's case, by contrast, people speculated that he mistook Martin for a burglar and decided to follow him at least partly because he was black. Even if that's true, Martin's skin color had nothing to do with whether he started the fight and was smacking Zimmerman's head against the concrete, thereby posing a potentially deadly threat, when Zimmerman fired his gun (although Martin's perception of Zimmerman's racially tinged suspicions may help explain how the fight started).

Presumably Dunn's murder trial, which began yesterday, will involve "the mechanics of Florida's self-defense laws and how juries apply them," as the Times says. It certainly should. But that does not mean any special aspect of Florida's law will determine the outcome. Judging from the opening arguments, the case, like Zimmerman's, comes down to dueling narratives that go to the question of whether the defendant reasonably believed firing his gun was necessary to prevent death or serious injury. According to the prosecution, there was no threat at all, let alone a deadly one.

The undisputed part of the story is that Dunn pulled into the gas station, which included a convenience store, so that his girlfriend could buy wine and potato chips. He was irritated by the music blasting from the SUV in which Davis was riding with his friends and asked them to turn it down. Initially they did, but soon the volume was back up, apparently at the urging of Davis, who said, "Fuck that nigger." (That's according to Davis' friends as well as Dunn.) Davis and Dunn got into an argument, and Dunn ended up firing seven rounds, three of which struck Davis.

Dunn claims Davis threatened to kill him and was getting out of the SUV, armed with something—a shotgun, a lead pipe, or maybe a stick—when he fired his handgun, which he had retrieved from his glove compartment because he felt threatened. Police found no weapons in the SUV or at the scene, although Dunn's lawyer, Cory Strolla, claims Davis' friends had time to ditch whatever it was and that police did not search the area near the gas station until days later, by which time the weapon easily could have been moved again. Police did find a camera tripod, which a frightened man might mistake for a gun, a lead pipe, or a stick.

According to the prosecution, Dunn was not frightened at all; he was angry. "[Davis] never threatened the defendant," Assistant State Attorney John Guy (who was also one of the prosecutors in Zimmerman's trial) said yesterday. "He disrespected him." In addition to the missing weapon, Dunn's defense is undermined by the fact that he left the gas station after the shooting and did not call police, even after his girlfriend saw a TV news report about the shooting that said someone had died. The police tracked Dunn down the next day via a license plate number reported by a witness. Strolla said Dunn, who was in Jacksonville for his son's wedding, planned to call the police after he got back to his home in Satellite Beach. This does not seem like the behavior of a man who believed he had used deadly force in a legitimate act of self-defense.

The right to "stand your ground" when you are attacked in a public place—which Florida's self-defense law, like those of many other states, notoriously protects—did not come up yesterday. It could make a difference in Dunn's trial (unlike Zimmerman's) if the prosecution argues that Dunn should simply have driven away when Davis threatened him. But at this point the prosecution seems keen to deny that Davis threatened anything but Dunn's pride. If there was no threat, Dunn cannot possibly claim self-defense, with or without a duty to retreat. And even if Florida imposed a duty to retreat, Dunn could argue that he was unable to safely withdraw when confronted by an armed man who threatened to kill him. The New York Times story, which is headlined "Trial Brings New Scrutiny of Self-Defense Laws," mentions "Stand Your Ground" twice but does not explain why it is relevant to the case.