News: Florida Self-Defense Law Complicated Jury’s Job in Michael Dunn Trial

michael-dunn-trial-1-021014Courtesy of by

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In failing to acquit or convict Michael Dunn on the most significant charge — the premeditated murder of a teenager in a dispute over loud music — a jury on Saturday may have run headlong into the breadth and reach of Florida’s contentious self-defense law.

In their 30 hours of deliberation, the 12-member panel wrangled with a question that cuts to the heart of all self-defense claims: How does a juror know when using lethal force is justified, where nothing is straightforward, memories are hazy or contradictory and perception counts as much as fact?

Even as the jury agreed to convict Mr. Dunn of attempted murder, it found no consensus on murder.

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.

Rather, the prosecution argued, Mr. Dunn shot Mr. Davis because he became enraged after the teenager disregarded his request to turn down the loud rap music blasting from the vehicle and then “mouthed off,” hurling expletives at him. He fabricated a story about the shotgun to bolster his self-defense claim, they added.

But the state failed to persuade everyone on the jury — four white men, four white women, one Hispanic man, two black women and an Asian-American woman — of their version of events. As a result, the judge was forced to declare a mistrial Saturday on the charge of first-degree murder. A new trial on that count is expected to take place later this year.

“This trial is indicative of how much of a problem Stand Your Ground laws really do create,” said Mary Anne Franks, an associate law professor at the University of Miami. “By the time you have an incident like this and ask a jury to look at the facts, it’s difficult to re-create the situation and determine the reasonableness of a defendant’s fear.”

The jury did convict Mr. Dunn, 47, on three counts of second-degree attempted murder, one for each surviving teenager in the car. Jurors agreed that Mr. Dunn was trying to kill the teenagers — not to defend himself — when he got out of his car, crouched and shot several more bullets into the truck as it drove away.

By that point, the teenagers posed no threat and there was no need to continue shooting, the jurors concluded.

For that, Mr. Dunn will serve at least 60 years in prison.

But it was the much thornier accusation of premeditated murder, as well as the lesser charges automatically included in jury instructions, among them second-degree murder and manslaughter, which tripped up a jury that, by all accounts, worked hard to try to resolve its differences.

Until a juror speaks publicly about the deliberations, no one outside the 12 can know precisely what happened in the jury room. But agreeing on what constitutes a “justified” shooting — an ambiguous definition — could have been one problem, legal experts said.

This is why the Davis family and the parents of Trayvon Martin say they are joining forces with lawmakers to continue to fight to change Florida’s so-called Stand Your Ground law. George Zimmerman, who claimed self-defense, was acquitted in July of Mr. Martin’s shooting death. 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.

The problem, Ms. Franks said, lies, in part, with the term reasonable, which is “squishy.” One person’s reasonable is another person’s overreaction. Getting 12 jurors with contrasting world views to agree on that is not a simple task — especially so in Jacksonville, which is 30 percent black, but is a conservative north Florida city. Add the racial overlay, and the case becomes more complicated. Mr. Dunn, a software developer, is white. Mr. Davis was black, as were his three companions.

Taken together, the episode was fraught with assumptions: Prosecutors said Mr. Dunn saw the loud teenagers as “gangsters.” Mr. Dunn’s fiancée said he complained about the “thug music” and Mr. Dunn described the teenagers’ expression as “menacing.” “It got ugly; I heard something something cracker,” Mr. Dunn testified about Mr. Davis’s reaction.

It is also possible that Mr. Dunn assumed the teenagers were armed because so many Florida residents do own guns, including Mr. Dunn, who got his license in the early 1990s. “Once you have a situation that someone white and male feels threatened by a group of young black men, is it possible that he sees a gun where there was no gun?” Ms. Franks said. “That is one of the more disturbing questions.”

Jurors were also asked to use their “common sense” and factor in Mr. Dunn’s behavior after the crime: He did not call 911 or the police. Instead, he returned to his hotel room with his fiancée, spent the night and then drove 2 1/2 hours to his home in Brevard County, where police tracked him down and arrested him.

His fiancée, who was in the convenience store during the shooting, testified that Mr. Dunn never told her that anyone had pointed a weapon at him. And, his testimony to the contrary, she said he did not call his neighbor, a federal agent, to say he needed to discuss a serious situation, a precursor to turning himself in.

Again and again, prosecutors said this did not jibe with the actions of a man who shot in self-defense. “But is it enough to say, ‘Well, then he really wasn’t afraid and he enacted a coldblooded killing?’ ” Ms. Franks asked.

It is also possible that jurors may have been divided over whether to convict on a lesser charge, like manslaughter, or to stick to premeditated murder, which requires forethought.

“Life is never simple,” Mr. Band said.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *