try to tease out the defendant’s real emotions and motivations.
ATLANTA — The Michael Dunn verdict on Saturday — where the white,
47-year-old software engineer was found guilty on attempted murder
charges, but not on a first-degree murder charge for killing a
17-year-old black youth, Jordan Davis of Atlanta — has once again put
the issue of armed self-defense firmly in society’s crosshairs.
The hung jury on the main murder charge came seven months after George
Zimmerman, a half-Caucasian, half-Hispanic neighborhood watch captain
was found not guilty in a murder trial for killing Trayvon Martin,
another black 17-year-old who, like, Jordan Davis, was not armed.
The non-verdict on the murder charge in Mr. Dunn’s case — prosecutors
have vowed to retry him — is tempered by guilty verdicts for three
counts of attempted murder after he peppered a fleeing SUV and its
four occupants with 10 9-mm bullets, nine of which struck the vehicle.
He could face from 15 to 60 years in prison for those crimes. His
attorney said he’ll appeal.
The overriding question in the wake of the verdict is what role
so-called stand-your-ground laws — now in force in over 20 states —
play in the decisions by police, prosecutors, judges, and juries.
Especially when considering cases that have racial overtones.
The issue is intensified by the explosive growth in the numbers of
Americans carrying concealed weapons publicly, from 1 million in the
mid-1990s to at least 8 million today.
Mr. Zimmerman referred to Trayvon Martin as a “punk,” and Dunn blamed
“thug culture” for the shooting, which followed an argument over loud
music. Many Americans, including the parents of the slain teens, see
those terms as codes for racial prejudice, especially against black
In both cases, adult men decided to engage black teenagers whom they
said they feared, and then, after emotions rose, decided to fire. In
Zimmerman’s case, evidence showed he had taken punches from Trayvon;
in Dunn’s case, only angry words, no fists, flew over a disagreement
over what Dunn called overly loud “rap crap” music coming out of
Davis’ SUV outside a Jacksonville convenience store.
Stand-your-ground laws, which were pioneered in Florida in 2005,
extend the so-called castle doctrine — a notion of English common law
— from the home to public places. The basic idea is that a citizen has
no “duty to retreat” from an aggressor before using deadly force to
stop an attack if they have reasonable suspicion that they’ll be hurt
On CNN, legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin pointed out that the issue is as
much political as legal, since the laws are largely supported — and
passed — by Republicans, and largely chided by Democrats.
The Dunn case, to many observers, reaffirms a central finding of a
Texas A&M study released in 2012 — that stand-your-ground laws have
begun to change the public calculus of self-defense in the country.
For one thing, the A&M study found that justifiable homicide findings
rose by 8 percent, on average, in stand-your-ground states. Another
study, by the Urban Institute, found that black shooters have a harder
time arguing justifiable homicide than whites if they’ve killed or
hurt someone of a different race, which suggests a bottom line “where
it’s really easy for juries to accept that whites had to defend
themselves against persons of color,” Darren Hutchinson, a civil
rights law expert at the University of Florida, told the Monitor last
Stand-your-ground proponents, however, point out that some of the
biggest defenders of the law are black defense attorneys, since black
defendants have a higher success rate than whites in invoking the law.
Most such cases in Florida, however, involve black-on-black violence
in which an armed attacker is rebuffed with gunfire.
The Jacksonville jury in the Dunn case took four days to negotiate the
final verdict, a testament to one of the main tentacles of criticism:
That the new law, largely supported by gun lobbies to make gun use
more defensible, can be confusing in its application.
To that point, what is notable is that the actual stand-your-ground
law was not invoked by defense attorneys in either the Zimmerman or
Dunn cases, but that both judges referred to the law in their jury
The law forces juries to try to do what many would deem impossible:
tease out the defendant’s real emotions and motivations, given that
the adversary has often been permanently silenced.
“Self-defense cases have to be the toughest for jurors to deliberate
because the difference between murder and self-defense depends on what
the defendant felt in his heart,” Florida defense attorney Mark
O’Mara, who successfully defended Zimmerman, writes about the Dunn
case. “At some levels, we burdened the jury with an impossible task,
and they knew if they got it wrong, they’d either be sending an
innocent man to jail or letting a murderer go free. In this case, no
verdict may very well have been the most appropriate decision.”
That argument highlights what can happen when lawmakers look for
solutions to a non-existent problem. The Florida law, for example, was
a conservative reaction to a post-Hurricane Andrew incident in which a
homeowner was charged by prosecutors after killing an intruder in the
mayhem after the storm.
“This trial is indicative of how much of a problem stand-your-ground
laws really do create,” Anne Franks, a law professor at the University
of Miami, tells The New York Times. “By the time you have an incident
like this and ask a jury to look at the facts, it’s difficult to
re-create the situation and determine the reasonableness of a
Some commentators saw in the verdict a continuation in a slow national
march toward greater rights for gun owners, and fewer rights for the
unarmed, especially minorities.
“The verdict came days after the Ninth US District Court of Appeals
struck down California’s limits on concealed weapons as overly
restrictive in violation of the Second Amendment,” the San Francisco
Chronicle opined on Sunday. “There can be no better example of how
that law [limiting concealed weapons] is a needed check against the
presence of guns in life’s moments of irrationality.”