I’ve been cringing a lot lately. It seems most of the time when I hear folks, including so called “legal experts,” provide opinions concerning the Dunn murder trial, my body physically reacts. I’m amazed at how many passionate and elegant speakers are disseminating misleading and even, inaccurate information concerning this “high profile” case. I wanted to take a moment to provide you with my take on it. There are some important lessons that can be learned. Take what you like and leave the rest.
Trials aren’t about justice. I subscribe to Aristotle’s definition of justice, which is, “Like cases being treated alike.” Within a short period of time into my two decades in the criminal justice arena, I realized that there was no justice. While that was the goal for some, I didn’t see that occurring as a rule. The outcome of criminal cases hinges upon a myriad of factors.
The trial of Michael Dunn was never about one side winning and another losing.
Dunn was convicted of four charges — including three counts of attempted murder — in a November 2012 shooting that killed Jordan Davis, 17, as he sat in an SUV at a Southside gas station with three other black youths.
Dunn will likely spend his remaining life in prison. Davis’ life remains lost.
Equally haunting, the jury was deadlocked on whether Dunn was guilty of first-degree murder in killing Davis, who got in an escalating verbal dispute with Dunn — a middle-aged white man — after Dunn asked the teens to turn down their loud music.
The mistrial on that charge means there’s still a troubling lack of closure.
It leaves us no closer to resolving this question: Why did Dunn feel compelled to fire 10 bullets at a vehicle containing four youths who were unarmed?
But Dunn’s trial and Davis’ death have provided lessons that our community and society must be willing to embrace and face head on.
INCIVILITY SHOULDN’T MEAN DEATH
Many in our community firmly believe Jordan Davis actually played a role in his death — that, somehow, the teen’s mouth caused his killing as much as Dunn’s gun.
They suggest that if only Davis had been more civil, more respectful, after Dunn asked the youths to turn down the music — a request Davis’ friend complied with — he would be alive today.
They insist that if only Davis hadn’t ordered his friend to turn the music back up — and then cursed at Dunn — things wouldn’t have reached a point where Dunn shot him.
Related: Remembering Jordan Davis for his life, not death
This sentiment is breathtaking in its insensitivity. And it devalues the young life that was lost.
Yes, Davis did speak to an adult in a disrespectful manner.
For that, the teen deserved a stern lecture or two chastising him for his lack of respect.
But should merely “being mouthy” or showing immaturity justify being killed?
No. Rudeness is not a capital offense.
SECRECY WAS UNNECESSARY
The jurors in the Dunn trial were given a massive burden. They were called on to weigh wildly conflicting testimony and potentially confusing charges in a highly charged case with racial overtones.
Those 12 people deserve our thanks and admiration for spending some 30 hours in grueling, careful deliberation.
Yet the fact remains that we still effectively know nothing about how the jurors were picked for the Dunn trial.
And that’s largely because of acting Circuit Judge Russell Healey’s overzealous use of secrecy during jury selection.
The public was deprived of being as fully informed as it should have been during a major moment in Dunn’s trial process.
Healey was responsible for depriving the public of that right. And while the trial has ended, the judge’s secretive actions remain just as wrong and indefensible.
RACIAL PERCEPTIONS EXIST
Here’s another lesson from the Dunn trial: Racial perceptions and stereotypes deeply shape how many of us perceive black youths.
When Davis and his three friends were sitting in their Durango — playing rap music at a high volume — they had simply stopped to buy gum before heading out to meet girls.
But Dunn perceived them to be four “thugs” who represented a looming threat to his life and that of his fiancee.
Would Dunn have had the same fears and perceptions if the four youths were white?
Or if aggressive speed metal music was blasting from their SUV?
The Dunn case clearly shows the stark gulf that often exists between perception, reality and black youths.
We need to acknowledge that rather than dismiss it.
WITH GUNS COMES RESPONSIBILITY
Dunn had a concealed weapons permit for the 9mm gun used in the shooting.
That leads to another lesson we must take from the Dunn trial: Citizens who have been given the right — the power — to carry concealed weapons have an obligation to hold themselves to higher standards around others.
During his testimony, Dunn acknowledged that he kept exchanging words with Davis after the initial disagreement.
By any standard, a middle-aged adult should possess enough self-control to refrain from ramping up a shouting match with a teen, particularly one in a clearly emotional state.
But when that middle-aged adult is also a citizen given permission to carry a concealed weapon — as Dunn was — they should be guided by an even higher level of personal restraint in their interactions with others.
Dunn clearly wasn’t on that deadly November 2012 night.
CHANGE THE STAND YOUR GROUND LAW
Katherine Fernandez Rundle, Miami-Dade state attorney, outlined logical changes to the law in 2012 in an addendum to the governor’s task force on the Stand Your Ground law.
“The statute has removed all requirements of reasonableness on the part of the person who uses deadly force …” she wrote.
“The statute should be amended to clearly indicate that it does not apply to someone who is the initial aggressor.”
The law as it is being interpreted has empowered unreasonable violence.
A man who fears for his life is allowed to defend it.
But what if that fear is based on an imaginary threat?
What if the shooter believes every black youth playing loud music is ready and willing to kill him?
The verdict has likely ended Michael Dunn’s life as a free man. And it won’t alter the fact Jordan Davis will never reach manhood. Nothing will change those facts.
But we can take lessons from the case that can allow our community and society to change how we treat and view each other, and for the better.
We should heed them.
Lessons to learn from the Dunn case (Florida Times-Union)