Dunn verdict again raises self-defense issue
Updated On: Feb 17 2014 11:10:00 AM EST
The mistrial on the murder charge against Michael Dunn in the death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis is again raising the issue of self-defense and race in Florida, just seven months after George Zimmerman was acquitted in the shooting of a black teenager, Trayvon Martin.
Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old software developer, could face 60 years in prison following his conviction Saturday on multiple counts of attempted murder for shooting 10 time at a SUV full of teenagers outside a Southside convenience store in November 2012. Davis, 17, was hit three times and died.
The verdict is a far cry from one delivered seven months ago, when Zimmerman was acquitted in July the shooting death of 17-year-old Martin in Sanford, about 125 miles south of Jacksonville.
Like Zimmerman, Dunn said he felt his life was in danger when he fired the shots. But the verdict suggested the jury struggled to see it that way.
Following an argument over loud rap music coming from the car that Davis was in, Dunn said he shot at the car with his .9mm handgun -- he said he was afraid and thought he saw a shotgun in the car Davis was in.
Legal experts say it's likely that at least one member of the jury believed Dunn's story -- about being scared, pulling a gun in self-defense and firing the first few shots, which killed Davis. The jury couldn't reach a decision on the first-degree murder charge, and after more than 30 hours of deliberations over four days, a mistrial was declared on that charge.
"Although I don't think the evidence supports this, it is possible that the jury felt that Dunn was proper to stand his ground as to Davis, but his shooting of the others in the car was excessive," said Kenneth Nunn, a law professor at the University of Florida.
Nunn and other experts said Sunday that it's possible the jury was confused regarding first-degree murder and the concept that it must be "premeditated."
"It's not possible to know without interviewing the jury," said Nunn. "I expect something to trickle out within a couple of weeks that will give us more insight into what the jury was thinking."
Self-defense vs. stand-your-ground
Another area of confusion for the general public is Florida's stand-your-ground defense law, which was a flashpoint during the Zimmerman case and, to a lesser degree, in this case.
Pastor John Guns was in the Dunn trial as the verdict was announced Saturday night and delivered a message Sunday morning at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church that people must work for change.
"My message is simple: We will not rest until stand your ground is dealt with appropriately," Guns said. "Secondly, this numbness, this mixed emotion, we're not going to turn it into a reason to be cynical."
Zimmerman told police he shot Martin only after the African-American teenager physically attacked him; Martin's family and supporters say Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, marked Martin as a potential criminal because he was black.
In both the Dunn and Zimmerman trials, lawyers decided not to pursue a pretrial immunity hearing allowed by Florida's stand-your-ground law. But in each case, jurors were told by the judges that they should acquit if they found the defendant had no duty to retreat and had the right to "stand his ground."
That phrase is part of standard instructions given jurors when they weigh a case involving a claim of self-defense.
But the state's stand your ground law was technically not part of either trial.
"Dunn's attorney argued self-defense, which has been around forever," said defense lawyer and former assistant U.S. Attorney David Weinstein. "I think people will say that because some of the language from the stand your ground statute gets embedded into the jury instructions, that stand your ground has an effect."
Pastor Guns told his congregation they must work intelligently and systematically, by learning the laws, organizing and collaborating. Guns says it's also about teaching young people how to handle potentially violent situations.
"I have to be conscious of who's around me, because at any time, that could have been me just at the gas station, filling up the tank, about to just go to the movies somewhere with my friends, and pow, I'm gone," said Kamren Mackey, who attends the church.
Gun's created Operation Save Our Sons to help steer young men away from violence and recruited Channel 4's crime and safety analyst Ken Jefferson to be the group's vice chairman.
Jefferson and his teenage son, who has a teenage son, shared how the trial and verdict affected their relationship.
"I just showed my affection more and more simply because I realize that life is very precious," Jefferson said. "We have to guard it, we have to protect it at all cost, as much as we can."
Michael Dunn could spend the rest of his life in prison
Judge Russell Healey could impose a 60-year sentence -- state statutes call for a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years on each second-degree attempted murder conviction. But the Florida Supreme Court could reduce the total sentence to 20 years if it decides that consecutive sentences are not appropriate when the sentences arise from one criminal episode, said Weinstein.
Dunn could also face 15 years imprisonment for shooting into the car. A sentencing date won't be set until a hearing next month.
Meanwhile, Dunn's attorney, Cory Strolla, has vowed to appeal.
"I basically told him to stay strong," Strolla said Saturday night, "and we're still going to fight."
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