Michael Dunn was just found guilty of first degree murder in the “loud music” shooting death of 17-year old Jordan Davis in Florida.
Dunn had already been convicted of four lesser charges in February. However, that jury deadlocked on the murder charge. Prosecutors chose to retry him on that charge alone and were successful. This of course is great news, unless you’re a cracker or a dipshit.
Jordan Davis is dead because he was black
When I say Davis was murdered for being black, I’m not being hyperbolic or speculative or inferring inductively from similar cases.
Consider: While this case has been branded as a fight over “loud music,” Dunn’s wife testified that Dunn took issue with the genre, rather than volume, of Davis’ music—calling it “thug music.” It’s no great secret that racist whites in the “post-racial” era use “thug” as code for “young, male and black.” But even giving Dunn the benefit of the doubt, in letters from prison, he uses the term interchangeably with “black.” And genre aside, he labeled the boys in the car with the synonymous term “gangsters.”
Consider further: Jordan Davis appeared to Dunn from the neck up, much as he does in this by now well-known pic:
Now ask yourself: If this is a “gangster,” precisely which features of this image would we need to change—apart from the substitution of white skin for black—in order to disqualify it from “gangster” status? Was Jordan supposed to wear a priest’s collar? Smoke a Sherlock Holmes pipe? Don a top hat and a fucking monocle? If not that, then what exactly, apart from white skin, was the issue?
Let’s be honest. Blackness alone qualified Davis as a “gangster,” and it marked him for death.
Stand Your Ground, again
Though it hasn’t been emphasized in the reporting, it was the defense’s choice to pursue a Stand Your Ground (SYG) strategy in the first trial that delayed justice. Eight out of ten jurors indicated that, but for the judge’s direction to heed this defense, they would probably have voted to convict in the first degree.
Florida’s SYG law specifies: A person may use force, “including deadly force[,] if [he] reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself ….” It includes an explicit “no duty to retreat,” having replaced the prior ‘deadly force’ law which allowed use of force only if retreat were impossible.
The law does state that the suspect’s belief that he is in mortal danger has to be “reasonable.” In principle, this part of the law could play a robust role. But unfortunately, (a) what counts as “reasonable” is nowhere specified in the law; and (b) for reasons not entirely clear to me, the “reasonable” clause is being ignored in application of the law.
In the Dunn trial, the “reasonable” qualifier was omitted in numerous jury instructions by the judge, emphasizing instead the “no duty to retreat” clause. The defense followed suit, arguing that what matters is “only if [Dunn] believed, right or wrong,” that his life was in danger.
There is reason to suspect this truncation of the law is commonplace is FL courtrooms. This omission has the effect of fetishizing the offender’s own perception of imminent danger—however grossly mistaken this perception may be. This is a serious matter: Three decades-plus of scientific study shows that whites like Dunn, even those who hold no overtly racist ideas, are likely to perceive black men like Davis as more threatening than they really are, and to manufacture ‘perceptions’ and even false memories to support that view. (See sect (2)(b) of my earlier post for the evidence.) The failure to examine the legal “reasonableness” of perceptions of threat makes an already shitty law worse; it vacates the chance to identify and account for any latent racism at work in both the defendant’s perceptions and the jury’s own beliefs.
Dunn was not in fear of his life
That said, Dunn never really had a good SYG defense, truncated version or not, and jurors were wrong to think he did. I say this because: Even if Dunn did face an imminent mortal threat in Jordan Davis, there is abundant evidence that he did not in fact perceive himself to.
The essence of SYG is that, even if defensive options short of deadly force (e.g. retreat) are available, one is legally free to ignore them. But there this knife has another edge: Failure to take one of these lesser options can itself be evidence that one did not perceive an imminent threat in the first place. That is, if Dunn’s safety would have been clearly better served by a retreat—that is, if “standing ground” was clearly more dangerous than leaving—this counts against his claim that he faced a mortal threat to begin with.
This possibility is implicit in the language of the law but so far absent from its application. But consider:
Dunn claimed that Jordan brandished a shotgun and threatened to “kill him.” Dunn responded to this “imminent threat” by asking for verbal clarification of the threat—“What did you say to me?—then ambled to his car to retrieve (and possibly load) a pistol from his glove compartment, then physically returned to the “threat” and began firing, finally chasing the “threat,” still shooting, as Davis squealed away in fear. Dunn had to know that simply leaving was more likely to keep him safe. But he stood and fought anyway. This isn’t the behavior of a “mortally scared” person; it is the behavior of a homicidal aggressor.
Witnesses heard Dunn say, “You’re not going to talk to me like that,” before (or rather as) he attacked. Really, is this how one responds to a verbal threat one takes seriously?—to emphasize its form rather than content? No way. If someone breaks in my house and holds a knife to my throat, I don’t get fucking offended about his churlish tone of voice. I get scared for my life. Dunn didn’t get scared; he got the vapors.
In the end, Stand Your Ground couldn’t protect Dunn. But it almost did. And someone else will get a chance to try it on, and soon. And the most likely beneficiary of this defense, when it works, will be a white killer of a black victim. The fact that these outcomes are patterned amounts to no less than state sanctioning of these deaths. And this has effects prior to and outside the courtroom. Quite frankly, it sends a message.
Dunn’s sentence is a victory and I’m not going to hate on it. But it is a rare one indeed, and for a reason.