CREDIT: AP Photo/The Florida Times-Union, Bob Mack, Pool
On Saturday, a Florida jury convicted Michael Dunn on several counts of attempted murder for firing ten rounds into a vehicle full of teens after a dispute over loud music, but they deadlocked on the question of whether Dunn was guilty of first degree murder for killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis. In the first interview since the shooting, one of the jurors told ABC News Wednesday that the reason for the deadlock was because several jurors believed Dunn was “justified” in shooting Davis under Florida’s self-defense laws.
“We took a poll,” said Juror #4, who identified herself by her first name, Valerie. “There were two of us undecided, two for ‘was justified’ and the rest were ‘not justified’.”
The trial has been compared to that of George Zimmerman, another instance in which a white man shot dead a black teen in Florida and successfully raised the argument of self-defense. Florida’s notorious Stand Your Ground law first came to national prominence after police hesitated to charge Zimmerman under the law, and national controversy over the expansive self-defense provision that authorizes deadly force has resurfaced as Dunn’s lawyer invoked the language of the law in this case.
After Zimmerman was acquitted of murder, one anonymous juror invoked the language of Florida’s robust self-defense law to explain on national television why he or she voted to acquit Zimmerman. Valerie’s comments this week suggest that a similar sentiment may have also been central in the Dunn jury deliberations.
Valerie said in an interview with ABC News’ Byron Pitts she believes Dunn “got away with murder” but that a few jurors believed strongly Dunn acted in self-defense, leaving the jury in a 8-2-2 deadlock that later turned 9-3 rather than moving closer to unanimity. Valerie said a key moment in the trial was when Dunn’s defense attorney Cory Strolla instructed the jury to turn to page 25, the beginning of the instructions on the justifiable use of force.
“Check page 25. Start with page 25,” Valerie said.
The moment in closing arguments that Valerie is referring to is when Strolla instructed the jury as follows:
I’m gonna talk to you a little bit about justifiable use of force. His honor’s gonna instruct you and it’s page 25-28 … I ask you when you go back in the jury room, go all the way to page 25 and start there, because the law’s gonna tell you very clearly. [explains standard for reasonable belief]
After describing the instructions on attempted use of force, which start on page 25, he continues:
On the next page, Judge Healy’s gonna tell you also that Michael Dunn is justified in using deadly force if he reasonably believed that such force is necessary to prevent either great bodily harm to himself or another. [...]
His honor will further tell you that If Michael Dunn was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in a place where he had the 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. And you will get the entire instructions. You’ll get to read word for word.
He concludes that section by saying, as if ackowledging the public controversy surrounding the Stand Your Ground law he just quoted:
It’s not because I wrote it. It’s not cause I like it. We’re not here to change it and we’re not here to fight it. We’re here to apply it.
During the interview, Pitts asked Valerie to explain why the jurors disagreed:
ABC: Why were the others so convinced that Dunn was guilty?
VALERIE: We all believed that there was another way out, another option.
ABC: What were his options?
VALERIE: Roll the 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.
What Valerie describes as “options” are what others might describe as “retreat,” and the Stand Your Ground law removes that duty for those who reasonably believe the force is necessary to prevent death or great bodily injury. Valerie also says during another part of the interview that she doesn’t believe the force was “necessary.” She explains that even if Dunn initially believed Davis had a gun and shot in self-defense, that does not explain why he continued shooting even after the car started to drive away. She described an impassioned jury room with jurors shouting over one another in disagreement.
Some have argued that Dunn’s case did not involve the Stand Your Ground law, but merely self-defense principles. But as is clear from Strolla’s closing argument — which Valerie said played prominently in the jurors’ deliberating — the Stand Your Ground law is now enshrined in state provisions on the justifiable use of force, making it particularly difficult to assess how much of a role the principle played in the decision — let alone the mindset of those turning to vigilantism. One recent study found that states that have passed Stand Your Ground laws over the last several years saw a jump in “justifiable homicides.”
Another study found that race also plays a significant role: white defendants with black victims are far more likely to have their killings deem “justified” in states with the Stand Your Ground laws.
Documents released by the State Attorney’s Office revealed significant racial animus by Dunn in letters he sent from jail, saying, “The more time I am exposed to these people, the more prejudiced against them I become.” Recordings of calls he placed from jail also suggest his animus toward African Americans. But these items were not presented to the jury as evidence, and Valerie said race did not play a role in their deliberations:
ABC: For a lot of folk in America they would say, white man shoots and kills 17-year-old black boy. How could it not be about race on some level?
VALERIE: Sitting in that room, it was never presented that way. we looked at it as a bad situation where teenagers were together, and words were spoken, and lines were crossed.
A second juror from the Michael Dunn trial spoke publicly about the verdict Friday. Juror #8, a black woman, says she came on CNN to respond to protests that focus on race, and wanted to clarify that “in our decision-making process, nobody brought up not one race. Never.” She confirmed Valerie’s explanation that self-defense was a dividing issue, although Juror #8 said she believed Dunn was guilty of second degree murder (he was charged with first degree murder). Nonetheless, she says she “fought” for Davis, and knows it will hurt Davis’s family that they now face a second trial on the charge of first degree murder.