Stand your ground, confusion share stage

 

Here is the state of our state when it comes to Florida’s self-defense law and this latest stunner of a court case:

A man in Jacksonville is found guilty of shooting at an SUV full of teenagers after a dispute over their loud “thug music.” With this verdict, he is held to answer for three kids in that red Dodge Durango thankfully not hit by the 10 times he fired.

But our shoot-first stand your ground law may also be responsible for keeping that same jury from finding Michael Dunn guilty of fatally shooting a fourth teenager, 17-year-old Jordan Davis.

And yet again, we are left to puzzle over the potential impact of a law that says if you feel reasonably threatened, you can shoot. You don’t have to back down.

As the world (or anyone who surfs CNN) knows by now, Dunn, a white software developer, was found guilty of the attempted murders of three black teens parked outside a Jacksonville store. Their loud music was turned down after Dunn pulled in next to them and complained, then turned back up. Dunn exchanged words with Davis, a passenger in the SUV.

Dunn would later say he saw the barrel of a shotgun, grabbed his gun and fired. But no other witness saw a shotgun, no shotgun was found and no one fired at Dunn. His fiancee said that he did not mention a shotgun afterward.

People I talked to who could see how a jury acquitted George Zimmerman under our self-defense law — our most controversial such case, until now — thought this would end in a conviction. But after four days of deliberating, the jury could not reach a verdict on the most serious charge, first-degree murder.

This is not to blame jurors, who have only the evidence and the law they are given to work with. The law says if Dunn reasonably believed he was about to be badly hurt or killed — whatever “reasonably” means — he is not guilty. He can shoot.

Maybe jurors will step forward to answer the swell of people stunned by this after the death of Trayvon Martin, who see it as proof that the lives of young black men mean less. Maybe legislators who refused to budge during an alleged reconsideration of the law in this gun-happy state might think again.

I wondered if there might be a clue to what hung this jury in this: Dunn was charged with attempted first-degree murder of the three teenagers who were not wounded. The jury said he was guilty of attempted second. First meant the shooting was premeditated.

So in the death of Jordan Davis, could jurors have split on whether the murder was premeditated or instead a situation that escalated fast and exploded — more accurately, second-degree? Could they have been ultimately unable to agree on this point?

In a case closer to home, a man is shot and killed after a dispute over texting in a Pasco movie theater. Absurd, everyone said, and clearly, not a stand your ground case.

Then we see video that shows the victim making what appear to be aggressive moves before it happened. We have a 71-year-old shooter who the law says had no duty to retreat if he felt“reasonably” threatened. Stay tuned.

As a practical matter in Jacksonville, Dunn is looking at 60 years in prison. Why retry the murder charge? What’s another check on a verdict form?

The answer is because it’s a life lost, and a law that needs all the scrutiny it can get.

Sue Carlton is a columnist for the Tampa Bay Times.

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