Mixed verdict in Dunn trial result of ‘Stand Your Ground,’ experts say

Legal experts say ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws influence society long before they reach the courtroom

Michael Dunn reacts to the announcement of the verdicts in his trial in Jacksonville, Fla., Feb. 15, 2014.
Bob Mack/Florida Times-Union/Reuters

Just six months after George Zimmerman’s acquittal triggered widespread anger over Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, the incomplete verdict handed down Saturday in the racially charged murder trial of Michael Dunn has ignited another firestorm over the law.

Dunn was accused of killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis in 2012 after having an argument with him over loud music in a convenience store parking lot. The most serious charge, murder, resulted in a mistrial. Dunn was convicted of four other charges and will effectively be imprisoned for life.

The partial verdict has left many puzzled by the seemingly inconsistent decision, which, while punishing Dunn for the attempted murder of three teenagers, stopped short of convicting him of killing Davis.

Experts say that the mistrial is a result of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which gives people the right to use deadly force to defend themselves without first attempting to retreat, and that this is further evidence that the law results in injustices.

Dunn’s fiancee, Rhonda Rouer, said the last thing she heard him say before the shooting was, “I hate that thug music.” Rouer was in the convenience store when she heard gunshots. After she ran outside, she said, he told her to get in the car, and they drove away.

Dunn told the court he felt threatened because he thought he saw Davis armed with a gun. But police found no gun. Still, after more than 30 hours of deliberations over four days, the jurors couldn’t agree on whether Dunn acted in self-defense in killing Davis.

In the trials of Dunn and Zimmerman, who was acquitted of killing unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin, “Stand Your Ground” was included as a consideration in jury instructions. In each case, the public scrutinized the jury’s outcome, but legal experts told Al Jazeera that focusing on jury deliberations obscures the real problem of expansive self-defense laws that encourage the use of force — variations of which exist in 22 states — by promoting a shoot-first mentality, with people assuming they would be acquitted in a court of law.

Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law permits individuals to use deadly force to defend themselves without any requirement to retreat from a dangerous situation, even if the opportunity to safely retreat exists. Traditionally, the right of an individual to use deadly force with no duty to retreat has applied only in confrontations on one’s property. As Niaz Kasravi, director of the NAACP’s Criminal Justice Program, put it, it effectively means “you can treat the entire country as your own property.”

Some legal experts Al Jazeera spoke to, regardless of how they felt about whether “Stand Your Ground” escalates situations, said the law likely led to the mistrial in Dunn’s first-degree murder charge. Others said that if “Stand Your Ground” didn’t exist, such cases wouldn’t be in court in the first place.

Thomas Blomberg, a dean and professor at Florida State University’s College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, told Al Jazeera that the apparent discrepancies in the partial verdict can be attributed to applying a confusing law to the facts of the case.

“The 12-member jury may have genuinely thought Dunn was initially justified in firing the first several bullets to defend himself from Davis but then went too far by continuing to shoot as the fleeing teens drove off. By then, the sense of emergency had passed, so it’s easier to come to an agreement on those charges.”

He added, “They were trying to interpret the jury instructions, and they clearly struggled with it, having deliberated for 30 hours. Normally, you don’t shoot first and ask questions later. But the conduct promoted by ‘Stand Your Ground’ creates a different context, and that’s what the jury struggled with.”

Donald Jones, a law professor at the University of Miami School of Law, said “Stand Your Ground” protects an initial aggressor. “In this case, Dunn could have moved his vehicle. He didn’t have to subject himself to the loud music,” he said. “But the law promotes the idea that you can use force whenever you feel threatened.”

He added that there is inherent danger in enacting expansive self-defense laws in communities where racism is prevalent. “Throughout the Deep South’s history, there’s been a pattern of whites shooting blacks who are perceived as threatening. In many ways, these cases are reminiscent of the lynching era, when black kids were getting killed simply because they were deemed threatening on a basis that was entirely subjective,” he said.

A 2013 study by the Urban Institute found that in states with “Stand Your Ground” laws, a white perpetrator and a black victim are 281 percent more likely to be ruled justified than cases with a white perpetrator and white victim.

However, John Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, has argued that such self-defense laws actually help poor blacks. In The Chicago Tribune he wrote, “Since poor blacks who live in high-crime urban areas are the most likely victims of crime, they are also the ones who benefit the most from ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws. The laws make it easier for would-be victims to protect themselves when the police can’t arrive fast enough.”

Some legal experts expressed frustration with the media’s eagerness to vilify the jury. George R. “Bob” Dekle, a retired prosecutor and a professor at the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law, said it’s unfair to make assumptions about jury deliberations before jurors had a chance to speak. He emphasized that it’s not the job of the jury to determine who is telling the truth but whether the evidence is sufficient. “That means that you can believe that someone is guilty, but if that belief is insufficient to erase all reasonable doubt based on the evidence, then your duty as a juror is to find the defendant not guilty.”

But Jones remains more skeptical and said that in his view, the case was not close. The evidence, he said, convinced him that Dunn committed premeditated murder. “The evidence showed that the gun had to have been loaded, suggesting that Dunn had enough time to think about his actions. Additionally, the medical records showed that Davis was sitting in his car turned away from the attacker at the time he was shot repeatedly by Dunn.”

Jones said that the jury would have had to disbelieve all the police experts and witnesses who testified. “One of two things happened here. Davis had a shotgun and advanced toward Dunn, which the evidence showed wasn’t true. Or alternatively, the teens were behaving in a way that was disrespectful and outrageous but not posing any danger. Which in that case, the normal remedy is for Dunn to drive away, no matter how outrageous their conduct, not to shoot the kids,” he said.

Calls to Dunn’s defense team and the state attorney’s office were not returned by time of publication.

The NAACP’s Kasravi wonders how rulings like this will impact the psyche of black youths. “What kind of signal does that send to young people when a man can point-blank shoot an unarmed teen, go on about their business, forget to tell their girlfriend, walk their dog and still feel protected ... and folks can’t agree on whether that’s murder or not?”

Mary Anne Franks, an associate professor of law at the University of Miami’s School of Law, told Al Jazeera that while it is possible that some jurors may have been “unprincipled” in their deliberation, the focus should be more on the “unfortunate intersection of a law that encourages people to use violence.”

“The jury’s job is only complicated by the existence of such a law,” she said. “‘Stand Your Ground’ confuses lawyers, judges and professors. I can only imagine how it affects jurors,” she said.

But, she added, “the harmful effects of the law occur long before the trial stage, and we should instead examine how the law impacts how we behave.”

“That’s the real problem. People are quite convinced that they can use deadly force in this way and that they never have to justify why.”

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