In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Michael Dunn case highlights squishy Stand Your Ground law

 

fgrimm@MiamiHerald.com

Jurors in the notorious Michael Dunn case began their deliberations by turning to Page 25 of the standard instructions they had carried into the jury room. They learned right off that when it comes to deciding claims of justifiable homicide, Florida stands on nebulous grounds.

They considered the key phrases that Circuit Judge Russell L. Healey, in his bland monotone, had read to them after the closing arguments.

The defendant “has no duty to retreat.”

The defendant has “the right to stand his ground.”

“The danger facing the defendant need not have been actual.”

Jurors saw that they were expected to ascertain whether Michael Dunn, when he opened fire on young Jordan Davis on Nov. 23, 2012, imagined that he was in grave peril.

The jurors had been told by defense attorney Cory Strolla in his final argument that “if Michael Dunn was in a public place where he had a legal right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force.”

There they were again, those magic words that have been plaguing the Florida justice system since 2005: “stand his ground.”

Michael Dunn, indeed, had stood his ground. With his gun blazing. After exchanging words with teenagers parked next to him outside a Jacksonville convenience store, bothered by loud rap music emanating from their SUV, Dunn pulled out his 9-mm automatic pistol and unleashed a volley of bullets. Jordan Davis, 17, seated in the back seat of the red Dodge Durango, was hit three times, twice in the legs and a fatal shot in the back. As the panicked driver of the Durango raced out of the parking lot, Dunn fired four more times. That made 10 shots in all. Investigators found nine bullet holes in the SUV.

Those last four reckless shots made conviction for three-counts of attempted murder an easy reach for the jurors. But they were hung up over the murder charge and Florida’s muddled notion of self defense. Dunn had claimed that he thought he saw Davis brandishing a shotgun, or perhaps it was an iron pipe, and that the 17-year-old was exiting the car in a threatening manner when he opened fire. “I thought I was gonna be killed,” Dunn testified.

Police found no shotgun or iron pipe. No other witnesses corroborated Dunn’s version. His initial story to police was inconsistent. But three of the 12 jurors harbored enough doubt to reject a first degree murder verdict.

The mixed verdict raised howls of outrage in the national press and social media. The verdict rendered by four white men, four white women, one Hispanic man, two black women and an Asian-American woman was widely characterized as racist. But it was Florida’s infamous self-defense statute, requiring jurors to peer inside a shooter’s head, that inspired the kind of crazy logic that would punish Dunn for attempted killings, but leave the actual homicide unresolved. Don’t blame the jurors for the twisted results of “stand your ground.”

Critics of the Dunn jury “really should knowledge themselves about the law,” Creshuna Miles, Juror No. 8, told CNN on Thursday. “I was honestly convinced that he was in self-defense until he chased the car down and started shooting more,” said Miles, who said a second degree murder charge would have been more appropriate.

Miles, 21, insisted that the jury deadlock had not been about race. “I never once thought about, oh, this was a black kid. This was a white guy,” she said. Miles, by the way, is black.

Juror No. 4, a white woman who told ABC Nighline that she wanted to be identified only as Valerie, said she voted for a guilty verdict on the murder charge because Dunn clearly had options other than gunplay. “Roll your window up. Ignore the taunting. Put your car in reverse. Back up to the front of the store. Move a parking spot over. That's my feeling.”

Valerie’s common sense judgment nicely coincides with the duty to retreat (if practical), before resorting to deadly force that was proscribed in Florida’s self-defense statutes before 2005. But that year the state legislature, at the behest of the all-powerful gun lobby, expanded the longstanding castle doctrine in self-defense (as in “a man’s home is his castle”) to nearly anywhere and any situation in which a lawful citizen feels threatened, diminishing the civic duty to avoid using deadly force.

Valerie sounded plenty rational, but Dunn’s lawyer might argue that she substituted common sense for Florida law.

Many critics of Florida’s crazy expansion of what constitutes justifiable homicide couch Stand Your Ground in racial terms, given that the state’s two most notorious self-defense cases, the fatal shootings of black teenagers Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, both had racial overtones.

But a Tampa Bay Times study last year of some 200 Stand Your Ground defenses found that 66 percent of the black defendants who evoked the self-defense statute at a pretrial SYG hearing (a tactic both George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn decided to forgo) went free, and 61 percent of white defendants who claimed SYG immunities saw their charges dropped.

The Times study also found that in mixed-race confrontations, four of the five blacks who killed a white person were freed after invoking SYG, while five of six whites who killed a black person were freed through Stand Your Ground.

Miami’s most infamous SYG dropped charges involved a running shootout between rival gang members driving along Old Cutler Road and another shooting of two unarmed men in a North Miami restaurant parking lot. Racial differences were not a factor in either of those killings.

Stand Your Ground may have been dreamed up by white middle-class gun fantasists who imagined themselves besieged by ethnic minorities, but the practical effect has been to provide imaginative defense lawyers a splendid new tool for defending gunslingers and gangbangers.

Not that deadlocking the jury on his murder charge will do much for Michael Dunn’s quality of life. At 47, he’s looking at up to 60 years in prison for convictions on three counts of attempted murder (and a fourth conviction for firing into an occupied vehicle). The most lenient sentence (an unlikely proposition) he could receive under Florida law would be 20 years. Plus, State Attorney Angela Corey said she intends to retry Dunn on the murder charge “to make sure that if any little thing got said or done in the four count case where we did have final verdicts of guilt, that if that case were to get reversed for a jury instruction or for something a witness said or something we did, then we would have that extra count on which to rely to make sure Michael Dunn never gets out of jail.”

Dunn is done, so to speak — which makes comparisons to George Zimmerman’s outright exoneration in the Trayvon Martin case seem tortured. The jurors, despite conflicting interpretations of Dunn’s state of mind on that November day in 2012, voted for the practical equivalent to a life sentence.

But they first had to overcome an obstacle to a dangerous, squishy piece of legislature foisted onto Florida by the gun lobby and its subservient lawmakers. That overtly political act of 2005 has had real and disturbing consequences when it comes to meting out justice. Just ask jurors No. 4 and 8.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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