The jury’s non-verdict on the most important charge in the Michael Dunn trial for the killing of Jordan Davis has many on Twitter up in arms, and rightly so. However, even though I’m quick to admit that there are major problems in Florida as I did in two previous posts: Florida: The Messed-Up State and Florida: 200 Election Redux?; even though, personally, I feel that Dunn should have been convicted of first-degree murder, I do not blame the jury for the fact that he was not.
I was a juror in a triple-murder case a few years ago. We found the defendant guilty of one count of second-degree murder and two counts of first-degree murder. We were also responsible for handing out a life or death recommendation to the judge. It was a very hard experience to go through, perhaps one of the hardest of my life.
I, along with many who sat with me in that jury room, felt a huge weight on our shoulders. We were judging a young man who had never been in trouble with the law. He had been hired to fix the roof of the house of one of the victims. He ended up killing the house’s owner after a fight erupted between the two of them. Afterwards, he waited for the other two victims and killed them as well. We never found out what triggered his killing spree. He didn’t want to take the stand, despite the many urgings by the judge. We all felt that there was a lot about the story we were not hearing, that something had made him snap.
His sister did take the stand. She told us about his childhood, about what a great brother he was, how he would look after her and their mom (their father was abusive), all the time crying and begging us not to recommend the death sentence. We did not. We recommended life.
I left that trial traumatized. I couldn’t get it out of my mind for months. Even though I knew that the defendant had killed three men, I felt compassion for him because I knew that his life was finished, even if we had spared it. I know that most people in that jury room felt the same way that I did. Now, if we felt this way for a defendant who we knew, without any doubt, had killed three men, I can only imagine the burden of a jury that has to determine guilt, as was the case in the Dunn trial. As a juror, you hold a person’s life in your hands, and you feel a great responsibility—a duty—to make sure that you’re making the right call.
There is no doubt in my mind that the Dunn trial jurors worked very hard. I would even bet that at least some of them wanted to find Dunn guilty of Davis’ death as they had no problem finding him guilty of three counts of attempted murder. But they just couldn’t. They could not because they were unable to discard the possibility that Dunn actually feared for his life, and because Florida is a Stand Your Ground state. In Florida, it is ok to carry a gun and shoot if you feel threatened. I believe that the jury in the Dunn trial did the best that they could within the legal framework in which they found themselves.
Some will say that race was a major player in this non-verdict. That if Michael Dunn were black and he had shot and killed a white Jordan Davis, that the verdict would have been different. Perhaps. We cannot deny that in our country, and in some states more than others, we are still suffering the tragic consequences of slavery, including the fact that blacks are judged more harshly than whites in and out of the courtroom.
However, Stand Your Ground, not the jury, is the reason why Michael Dunn does not have a conviction for the killing of Jordan Davis. As I mentioned in my post On The George Zimmerman Verdict, our anger should be directed at the NRA which has not only successfully fought against any type of gun control but has also expanded gun rights to the detriment of public safety. The NRA was responsible for getting Florida to be the first state to adopt the Stand Your Ground law in 2005 and has ever since worked aggressively to install it in half of our country (26 states to be precise).
When all is said and done, the unavoidable truth is that Jordan Davis would be alive today if Michael Dunn had not had a gun in his possession when the two met. But even more true is the fact that Michael Dunn—white or black—would have been convicted of murder if, in Florida, a person’s right to live would be more important than a person’s right to bear arms.