Explaining the Dunn non-verdict

One day in November 2012, a white man named Michael David Dunn got into an argument with four black teenagers over the loud music they were playing.  Dunn says one of the youths threatened him with a gun, and in response he grabbed his own weapon and fired in self-defence – killing one of the boys.  He then continued to fire at their vehicle as they drove away.  Police later found no weapon in the boys’ possession.

Dunn was charged with one count of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder.  Last night, after a lengthy period of deliberation, a jury found him guilty of attempted murder but could not reach a verdict on the murder charge, resulting in a mistrial.

Jurors deadlocked on whether Michael David Dunn, 47, murdered 17-year-old Jordan Davis or shot him in self-defense. Judge Russell Healey declared a mistrial on the murder charge.

Jurors did convict Dunn of the second-degree attempted murders of Tevin Thompson, Leland Brunson and Tommie Stornes, and also convicted him of a fourth count of firing bullets into the vehicle all four teenagers were in.

[...]

Dunn was arrested in November 2012 the day after he fired 10 shots into the vehicle Davis was in with three friends. Davis died at the scene while the other three teenagers were not hurt.

According to police and court documents, Davis and Dunn argued over the loud music in the boys’ Dodge Durango. Dunn had pulled his Volkswagen Jetta into a Gate gas station next to the Durango while his fiancée, Rhonda Rouer, went into the convenience store to purchase a bottle of wine and some chips.

Dunn asked the teenagers to turn down their thumping rap music. Thompson, who was in the front seat of the Durango, complied.

But Davis cursed and told Thompson to turn the music back up.

An argument ensued, and Dunn testified Davis threatened to kill him and had a shotgun. He said Davis was getting out of the car to kill him when he defended himself with his own gun from his glove compartment.

The other teens in the SUV and several witnesses in the parking lot said Davis never got out and didn’t have a gun. They said Davis cursed at Dunn but never threatened him.

One witness in the parking lot said Dunn screamed, “You can’t talk to me like that” before pulling out his gun and firing it at the Durango. Dunn testified he said, “You’re not going to kill me.”

After Dunn opened fire, Tommie Stornes backed the Durango up and fled into a connected plaza parking lot to get away. Dunn continued to fire, hitting the back of the Durango with three shots.

After about three minutes and realizing Davis had been shot, the teenagers returned to the Gate and 911 was called.

Attorneys for Dunn argued that the weapon Dunn said he saw could have been disposed of by the friends while in the adjacent parking lot. Police did not search the plaza parking lot that night. Prosecutors said police didn’t know to search it because Dunn fled the scene and didn’t tell his story to police until the next day when he was arrested.

Prosecutors have already announced that Dunn will be re-tried for murder, and he will almost certainly spend the rest of his life in prison on the lesser charges.  But it seems to defy logic: how could he be convicted for the attempted murder of the boys he missed, but not for the murder of the one he killed?

Hopefully, we’ll soon find out how the jury voted and why they deadlocked.  Because of questions put to the judge by the jury, it’s assumed at least one juror accepted the self-defence claim for the murder – but it’s possible that they disagreed over the distinction between manslaughter and murder (the former requires intent to harm, the latter intent to kill) or between first-degree and second-degree murder (the former requires premeditation, the latter does not).

More importantly, I understand that the distinction between the charges arises from the first volley of shots fired by Mr. Dunn, when the SUV was parked, and those he fired after the vehicle drove away.

In order to claim self-defence, Dunn had to argue that he feared for his life, and that he felt his actions were necessary to defend himself.  Although no weapon was found in the boys’ possession (or at the scene, which was not searched until several days later) it’s theoretically possible that Dunn legitimately believed Jordan Davis did have one, and that he was about to shoot.

By contrast, when the boys drove away, Dunn kept firing.  By that point, the claim of self-defence was no longer feasible – they were leaving the scene and could not be considered a threat.  Hence, his conviction on the other charges.

We still don’t know how the jury (which consisted of eight white people, two African-Americans, one Hispanic and one Asian) broke down, either.  If the whole jury accepted the self-defence claim, Dunn would have been acquitted.  But if just one juror accepted self-defence to this charge and would not be moved, that’s all you need for a hung jury.

There was, of course, a racial aspect to the Dunn trial – just like the George Zimmerman trial from 2013, a white Florida man was on trial for shooting an unarmed black teenager.  Even the prosecutor, Angela Corey, was the same.  I’m under no illusions about the gross racial disparities in the American and Floridian justice systems – see the case of Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced to twenty years in prison for firing a warning shot at her estranged husband, after a jury deliberated for only 12 minutes.  (The conviction was later overturned on appeal, and Alexander is free on bail pending her new trial in March.)

But from a legal point of view, it’s possible to make a distinction between the shots that killed Jordan Davis and those that didn’t kill his friends, and Dunn’s mindset at the time each was fired. Hopefully, his retrial for murder will leave no questions unanswered.

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About Damian P.

Lawyer with Bedford Law, Bedford, Nova Scotia.
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One Response to Explaining the Dunn non-verdict

  1. Herbert says:

    Good day! Do you use Twitter? I’d like to follow
    you if that would be ok. I’m absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

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