New Fla. case reopens examination of race, €˜'stand your ground'

Another white shooter, another teenage black victim magnify questions of racial imbalance around a controversial law

Accused shooter Michael Dunn and victim Jordan Davis, on the cover of Jet Magazine.
L. to R.: Jacksonville Sheriff's Office; Jet

Lucy McBath and Ron Davis stood in a Jacksonville, Fla., courtroom on Thursday, within yards of the man who has admitted he killed their son.

On Nov. 23, 2012, Michael Dunn fatally shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis at a southside Jacksonville gas station, allegedly following a dispute involving loud music. Under police questioning, he said a teen in an SUV pulled a weapon, which he said he believed was a shotgun, or possibly a stick or a tire iron, prompting him to open fire and unload eight or nine bullets into the SUV, which held Davis and three friends. Only Davis was hit. Dunn fled the scene and returned to his home in Satellite Beach, Fla., some 170 miles down I-95, where he was subsequently arrested. No weapon was ever found in the SUV or on any of the occupants, including Davis.

Dunn’s attorney, Cory Strolla, has yet to indicate whether he will invoke Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, but there has been much speculation that it will form Dunn’s defense.

On Thursday, the frenzy that surrounded the trial of George Zimmerman and inspired a national debate on “stand your ground” and race relations was not in evidence as Dunn was led into the courtroom in shackles. Other than some assembled media, Davis’ family and a few camera-happy attorneys, it was business as usual. The judge approved Dunn’s motion for continuance. A pretrial will take place Sept. 19; the judge indicated that the trial should begin early next year.

“Stand your ground” extends a self-defense claim, traditionally given to homeowners, to people who are lawfully present in any location, removing the duty to retreat and allowing an escalation of violence based on a reasonable belief of imminent great bodily harm or deadly force. To date, 20 states have enacted such laws. 

For some, this case reopens still-fresh memories of Zimmerman’s trial, just weeks after he was found not guilty in the killing of unarmed, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012. Zimmerman’s attorneys never specifically invoked “stand your ground,” but one juror later told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that the provision was discussed during jury deliberations. Because “stand your ground” is part of Florida’s self-defense law and doesn’t operate alone, it is difficult to separate a self-defense claim from the provision.

Support for the law is split along racial lines. A national poll by Quinnipiac University found an equal proportion -- 57 percent -- of white people supporting it as of black people opposing it. That statistic was reflected outside the courthouse in Jacksonville on Thursday.

“Pretty much against it,” said J. Adams, who is black. “I don’t agree with all the stipulations of what goes on with it. It’s kind of … just too many gray areas.”

“(I’m) for it. I think because if somebody’s coming after you, you have to defend yourself,” said Cord Poe, who is white. “Otherwise, what else are you going to do?”

Attorney Ahmad Abuznaid, legal and policy director of the Dream Defenders, which formed in reaction to Martin’s killing, believes “stand your ground” goes against the values that society should promote.

“Standard self-defense laws required a duty to retreat; if you can retreat, you should, because as a society we have decided that if you can save a life, you should,” Abuznaid said. “(Today) if you feel the need to stand your ground and react with deadly force, you have a right to. For me as a citizen of Florida, that is a very scary thought.”

For the Dream Defenders, “stand your ground” is as much an issue of race as it is of philosophy. Abuznaid said studies have shown that a white person who has killed a black person is more likely to be acquitted in states with such statutes. An Urban Institute report found that “homicides with a white perpetrator and a black victim are 10 times more likely to be ruled justified than cases with a black perpetrator and a white victim, and the gap is larger in states with ‘stand your ground’ laws.”

Following Zimmerman’s acquittal, the Dream Defenders camped out in Gov. Rick Scott’s office in the Florida Capitol and remained there for a month, ending their occupation on Thursday.

Abuznaid and others say the deaths of these young men reflect the racism inherent in society. They believe that if Martin and Davis had been white like Zimmerman and Dunn, they would both be alive today.

“The killing of Jordan Davis by Dunn and the invocation of the law, the social and political -- and really racial -- implications, really do raise issues of how far we have come,” said University of Florida professor Katheryn Russell-Brown, author of “The Color of Crime” and director of the university's Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations.

“Where can young black men in particular be at home in the world? Where can they go, where can they be without their blackness representing all that is bad and really on display?” Russell-Brown said.

Although both of Davis’ parents believe that their son’s killing likely involved a racial element, they say they are more focused on solving the issues around violence and the gun culture fostered by NRA-backed “stand your ground” laws than in lending support to causes that exclude other races.

“It’s not defined, so people are continuing to use the ‘stand your ground’ legislation out of context to do whatever they want to do,” said McBath. “Shoot first, ask questions later. We really believe that it has had tremendous impact with what’s been happening, particularly in Florida, but also that it will be a domino effect. It will become a cultural epidemic of guns and people using ‘stand your ground’ legislation all over the country.”

Martin’s parents and their attorney, John M. Phillips, say that not only does the law encourage an escalation of violence, but that people are being coached in how to get away with murder by invoking "stand your ground" as a defense.

“In concealed-weapons-permit classes they teach the gray area; they teach ‘stand your ground,’ ” said Phillips, himself a holder of a conceal-and-carry permit.

But others point to the relatively small number of successful defense claims based on the law as evidence of its minimal impact.

Florida defense attorney Nicholas J. Dorsten, a supporter of “stand your ground,” was a prosecutor from 2003 to 2008; the law went into effect in 2005. “To be honest, not just myself but talking with other people, we were expecting a whole bunch of new (‘stand your ground’) cases, but really there wasn’t, at least in Pinellas (County) and surrounding areas, any difference,” he said.

Abuznaid, whose Dream Defenders group is vowing to broaden its protest to fight the law, said the damage has already been, and continues to be, done.

“The story goes,” he said, “another young black man had his life ended by a white man.”

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