The Michael Dunn verdict last weekend brought a wave of powerful emotions for those of us who waited anxiously to see if justice would be served. A Florida jury convicted Dunn, a 47-year old white man, on four charges including three counts of attempted murder in the 2012 shooting death of black teenager Jordan Davis. But on the central charge, first degree murder, the jury deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial.
On the one hand, there is relief that the jury did not acquit Dunn and he will undoubtedly serve many years in prison after his sentencing next month. But there is also confusion that yet another unarmed black boy could be killed and yet another jury could not reach a decision on a murder charge. The mixed-bag verdict leaves no room for joy and certainly no room for satisfaction.
For much of Dunn’s trial, it appeared that Jordan Davis himself was the one on the stand.
Florida Attorney Angela Corey’s prosecution team – the same team that failed to convict George Zimmerman last summer in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin – again could not convince a jury that a senseless, unwarranted killing of another human being had been committed.
Dunn was armed, aggressive, privileged, and hateful. One of his neighbors revealed his history of making racially charged statements, and his own jailhouse letters displayed a callous hatred for African Americans—evidence the prosecution chose to omit from the record. By downplaying the role of race in this case as well as in the Zimmerman case, the prosecution pushed to the margins the clamors of people of color and falsely reinforced the notion that our criminal justice system and self-defense laws like Stand Your Ground are race neutral. This is simply not the case.
We’ve been down this road before. In the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal, black and brown youth, along with their parents, have adamantly urged the reform of Florida’s self-defense laws that sanction the use of deadly force outside of one’s home without imposing a duty to retreat. The duty to retreat helps to prevent the escalation of conflicts – to encourage individuals, whenever possible, to take the least violent route. Both Zimmerman and Dunn had the opportunity to retreat or remain in a place of safety, but they refused to do so. As a result, two young boys lost their lives because of the subjective fears of men with guns.
There will be many arguments about why the state of Florida should not retry Dunn on murder charge – it would be too costly, Dunn is already going to prison for 75 years after his conviction on the lesser charges, and so on. But as concerned Florida citizens and human beings, we should afford the dignity of a second trial to the family of yet another black teenager who unnecessarily lost his life. Jordan’s life mattered, and he deserves justice.
While this has been a devastating experience for Jordan’s family and friends, it’s an issue that affects us all. Stand Your Ground laws endanger everyone, though the fear is more acute for black boys who have now witnessed two very public trials that exposed a criminal justice system that does not protect them. What should have been a clear decision over the murder of a young boy became muddled in the era of Stand Your Ground laws. The jury’s deadlock on the murder count exposed the confusion that these laws introduce to the criminal justice system, and reveal how far we have not come in terms of race relations in the U.S.
All parents, all youth, and certainly all people who care about justice should continue to urge lawmakers to pass commonsense self-defense laws that value human life.
The proposed bills currently filed in the Florida Legislature don’t go far enough. They do not reassert the duty to retreat, which is integral to promoting less aggressive ways of defusing conflicts. They do not include protections to correct the racially biased manner in which these laws are applied. The Dream Defenders, however, have put forth a proposal to address these issues, and we invite lawmakers and the public to engage in an honest, thoughtful policy debate to ensure that self-defense laws protect equally, ascribing value to every life.
It’s hard to tell if we’ve progressed since the days of lynchings. Emmett Till was 14 when he was brutally murdered for “flirting” with a white woman in 1955. Jordan Davis was killed after a white man took exception to Davis’ refusal to follow his command that he lower the volume of his music. Some might say Davis and Till were killed because they didn’t know their place and respect the wishes of white men, America’s “real” citizens.
If America accepts Dunn’s narrative of the “violent rap subculture” being the problem, will it also accept the fears of people of color from white vigilantes? Will it be acceptable for the next black youth approached by an arrogant jerk to shoot to kill because this has happened too many times? Gil Scott Heron once famously quipped, “Who will survive in America?” If these laws and racist attitudes continue, then no one will.
Editor’s note: Ahmad Abuznaid is the legal & policy director for Dream Defenders, a Florida-based civil rights organization led by youth of color. Meena Jagannath works with the Community Justice Project of Florida Legal Services.