A verdict in Florida is again raising the issue of self-defense and race, 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 on Saturday last week on multiple counts of attempted murder for shooting into a carful of teenagers outside a Jacksonville convenience store in 2012. Jordan Davis, 17, died in the incident.
The verdict is a far cry from one delivered seven months ago, when Zimmerman was acquitted in July last year of the shooting death of 17-year-old Martin in Sanford, about 200km 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 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 is 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 could not 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 on Sunday said that it is 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,” Nunn said. “I expect something to trickle out within a couple of weeks that will give us more insight into what the jury was thinking.”
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.
Zimmerman told police he shot Martin only after the African-American teen 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. However, 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.
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,” Miami defense lawyer and former assistant US Attorney David Weinstein said. “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.”
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.