On Feb. 15 a jury in the state of Florida found Michael Dunn guilty of three counts of attempted murder and one count of shooting at a moving car, but failed to agree on the charge of murder in the first degree in the death of Jordan Davis.
Mr. Davis was 17 years old and was shot by Dunn after Dunn and Davis got into an argument over loud music being played from a car Davis and his three friends were driving. Dunn claimed that he feared for his life because he saw what he thought was a gun in the car during the encounter. He claimed that Davis showed him what looked like the top of a shotgun. There was no weapon found in the car. Davis was black and Dunn was a 45-year-old white male when the incident occurred on Nov. 23, 2012.
The issue of self-defense in Florida is whether Dunn believed that his life was in danger. The Florida law, F.S. §776.013(3), reads as follows: “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” The law extends the Castle Doctrine (the right to defend your home without retreat) to any place a person has a right to be. Pennsylvania has a similar law, see PA 18 § 505(a) and (b)(2).
The law allows for the lawful killing of another based on what the person believes is a threat to his life - and that is the problem. The law allows for the subjective belief one’s life is in danger, not whether his belief was objectively reasonable. In other words, whether a reasonable person in the situation would have believed his life was in danger. The Florida Stand Your Ground Law is a complete defense if the jury believes the accused believed that his life was in danger. If the jury does not believe that the accused believed his life was in danger, the defense collapses. The defense also collapses if the deadly force used was not used to repel an attack. In other words, it can’t be used on a person who is retreating.
In the Dunn case, the jury could not agree on the first degree murder charge because they could not agree on whether they believed that Dunn believed his life was threatened by Davis. But they convicted on three counts of attempted murder because Dunn shot into the car as the car was moving, thus the three other boys were no threat. The fact of Dunn shooting multiple times into the car with some seconds passing between each set of shots, established intent to kill with no stand your ground justification. Since the boys lived, it was attempted murder.
There is a lot that can be said regarding the law in Florida, but the real issue that makes this case a national case is race and what did Dunn see and perceive when he saw four black males in a car playing load music. The truth lies in how his initial perception of these boys led him to fear for his life when the boys did not back down when he complained that they were playing their music too loud in a gas station.
The sad truth is that as a social, cultural and historical matter, young black boys are seen as a threat. From the days of slavery, the young black male slave was something to be controlled because it was truly believed that he would otherwise not work and would kill his white male slave master after raping his slave owner’s white wife. When slavery ended, blacks were feared because of the abuse they suffered in slavery. The freed black was something to be feared and he was not equal. Although we have come a very long way since this type of thinking, the fear has not been dissipated completely.
Here is the point, it is that subconscious and unspoken and unacknowledged fear that black males, per se, are dangerous that can lead a 45-year-old white man to be in a mindset that would lead to the belief that his life was in danger when confronted by four young boisterous black teenagers.
It was fear, not racism, that got Trayvon and Jordan killed.
Dr. Arthur Garrison is an assistant professor of criminal justice at Kutztown University. This piece is the work of Dr. Garrison and does not reflect the opinions of Kutztown University or its faculty, staff, students or alumni.