Despite That Awful 'Stand Your Ground' Law, a Florida Jury Manages to Convict Michael Dunn of Murder
On Wednesday a Florida jury found Michael Dunn guilty of first-degree murder for shooting and killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis after an argument over loud music at a Jacksonville gas station in 2012. Dunn had already been convicted on three counts of second-degree attempted murder for firing at the car in which Davis and three other teenagers were riding as it pulled out of the station. But the jurors in Dunn's first trial could not reach a verdict on the murder charge related to Davis' death because some of them believed Dunn may have reasonably feared for his life during his argument with Davis. This time around, the jury clearly did not buy Dunn's fishy self-defense claim, which hinged on a shotgun that no one else saw, that he never mentioned to his girlfriend after the incident, and that police never found.
Still, first-degree murder, which requires premeditation, seems like a stretch. If Dunn fired in anger after Davis disrespected him, as the prosecution argued, he acted in the heat of the moment, with little time for reflection, and may never have clearly formed an intent to kill. Given the circumstances, second-degree murder, which requires "an act imminently dangerous to another and demonstrating a depraved mind without regard for human life," seems more appropriate. But either way, Dunn, who already faced at least 60 years on the other charges, is going to prison for the rest of his life.
One thing that's clear now that the case has been concluded: The shooting of Jordan Davis is not, as widely claimed, an example of how Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law lets people get away with murder. Not only was Dunn convicted, but the absence of a duty to retreat does not seem to have played a significant role in either trial. As with George Zimmerman's shooting of Trayvon Martin, the case came down to the same issue that jurors in any state would confront when someone accused of murder claims he acted in self-defense: Did the defendant reasonably believe the use of lethal force was necessary to prevent death or serious injury? If you believe Dunn invented the shotgun he says Davis had, that is the end of the inquiry.
With Mr. Davis's death coming only months after the killing of another unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, his shooting also brought renewed focus to Florida's so-called Stand Your Ground law. The 2005 law makes it easier for people to claim self-defense if they have a reasonable belief that their lives are threatened, whether the threat proves real or not. George Zimmerman was ultimately acquitted of murder in Mr. Martin's death.
It is clear why Alvarez brings up the possibility that the use of lethal force could be justified even if the threat that the defendant reasonably perceived turns out to have been illusory: Even if Dunn only imagined that Davis had a shotgun, he still could have been acquitted (although he wasn't). The implication is that such an outrageous outcome is possible only in benighted places such as Florida, when in fact it could theoretically happen in any jurisdiction, although persuading a jury that an imagined threat gave rise to a reasonable fear is a pretty tall order. But at least Alvarez is not claiming, as the editorial board of her newspaper did after Zimmerman's acquittal last year, that Florida is unusual in recognizing a reasonable fear of death or serious injury as a justification for the use of lethal force.
Alvarez and her colleagues at the Times are not alone in comparing Dunn's case to Zimmerman's and arguing that both had something to do with Florida's excessively broad definition of self-defense. After the verdict on Wednesday, Jordan Davis' mother, Lucia McBath, said, "We're very grateful that justice has been served, not only for Jordan, but justice for Trayvon and justice for all the nameless faces and children and people who will never have a voice." McBath may be right that the shooting of Trayvon Martin was legally unjustified, but the crucial difference between that case and this one is the evidence of a violent altercation, as opposed to a mere exchange of words, prior to the shooting. It is still unclear to me whether Zimmerman reasonably feared for his life, but his story, unlike Dunn's, was plausible and supported by considerable evidence.
To convict Zimmerman, the prosecution had to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he did not act in self-defense. It did not come close to satisfying that standard (which, contrary to what the folks at the Times might believe, is not unique to Florida either). Dunn's case was much easier to win, not just because of the disappearing shotgun but because he acted like a guilty man after the shooting, leaving the scene and failing to call the police. Except for his own self-serving testimony, there was no evidence that Davis ever physically threatened him, with or without a weapon.
Although the absence of a duty to retreat does not explain Zimmerman's acquittal or the hung jury in Dunn's first trial, you could argue that it emboldened both men to get involved in violent encounters they could easily have avoided. But that argument is not very plausible either. It is hard to believe that Zimmerman, when he started following a black teenager he mistook for a burglar, was thinking about what might happen if he ended up shooting Martin. And once they were fighting and rolling around on the ground, the duty to retreat was irrelevant. In Dunn's case, where the prosecution argued that he acted in a fit of anger, it is even less plausible that the details of Florida's self-defense law were on his mind. With or without a duty to retreat, there is no way he could have thought it was OK to shoot someone for wounding his pride.