Since the death of Trayvon Martin, reports of individuals who shot and killed others in the street claiming self-defense have proliferated. But one of the most prominent of all goes to trial this week, in a case involving a then-45-year-old man who shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis after complaining about his loud music.
Defendant Michael Dunn claims he felt threatened after he pulled up next to victim Jordan Davis and his friends at a Jacksonville convenience store parking lot. After Dunn asked Davis and his friends to turn the music down they were playing in their sport utility vehicle, a dispute emerged between them. One witness heard Dunn say, “You are not going to talk to me like that,” according to the police. Dunn then allegedly pulled his gun out of his glove compartment and fired several shots into the SUV where Davis was sitting with three friends. Several witnesses to the shooting say they saw no physical altercation. Dunn then fled the scene and was apprehended by police a day later. Davis died in the arms of his friend in the car, unarmed, according to his father. No guns were found inside the car.
In a letter to local television station WJXX, Dunn said, “After multiple threats of death by Jordan Davis and his brandishing of a weapon, I was convinced that my life was in danger … I had no choice but to defend myself, I am NOT a murderer. I am a survivor.”
Letters by Dunn from jail released this week by the State’s Attorney’s Office reveal disturbing racial animus. In a letter to an unknown recipient highlighted by Jacksonville’s WTEV, he writes:
It’s spooky how racist everyone is up here and how biased toward blacks the courts are. This jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs. … This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these **** idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.
In another letter to his girlfriend highlighted by HLNtv, he writes:
I just got off the phone with you and we were talking about how racist the blacks are up here. The more time I am exposed to these people, the more prejudiced against them I become.
And in another to his grandmother, he says:
I’m not really prejudiced against race, but I have no use for certain cultures. This gangster-rap, ghetto talking thug ‘culture’ that certain segments of society flock to is intolerable.
Since the incident, Davis’ mother Lucia McBath has joined Trayvon Martin’s mother as one of the most vocal advocates for reforming the state Stand Your Ground laws that became famous after Martin’s death. McBath testified at a hearing to repeal Florida’s law, “My grief is unbearable at times. I’m here as a face of the countless victims of gun violence.” But after receiving this and other testimony at a packed and emotional hearing, the Florida House’s Criminal Justice Subcommittee voted to kill a repeal bill, and instead advanced another bill that would expand the Stand Your Ground defense to warning shots.
Stand Your Ground laws, backed by ALEC and the NRA, grant immunity from all civil and criminal charges to individuals who can show a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily harm anywhere they had a legal right to be. While the law is inherently broad, it leaves room for discretion among judges and juries, and statistics show that it has been applied to favor immunity for whites who kill blacks. Unlike some other Florida shootings involving the Stand Your Ground law, police did not refrain from prosecuting Dunn for first-degree murder, and Dunn did not request a hearing to seek immunity before trial. But Dunn could still raise the Stand Your Ground defense at trial. And even if he doesn’t, the law could come into play in the jury instructions, as it did in the George Zimmerman acquittal.
The facts of Dunn’s case are seemingly even more damning, particularly because there are several witnesses, and even his girlfriend has agreed to testify against him. But in the time since Zimmerman’s acquittal, Florida courts have used the Stand Your Ground law to immunize a shooter who killed two men outside a Chili’s after going to his car to retrieve his gun, and another who killed an acquaintance for threatening to beat him up.