Will Michael Dunn’s Trial, Unlike George Zimmerman’s, Have Something to Do With ‘Stand Your Ground’?

The New York Times says
the trial of Michael Dunn, the middle-aged software developer who

shot and killed
17-year-old Jordan Davis at a Jacksonville gas
station in 2012, is not about race so much as “the mechanics of
Florida’s self-defense laws and how juries apply them.” In that
respect, the Times says, the case is
different from George Zimmerman’s 2012
of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.
Which is weird, because there was no mention of race in Zimmerman’s
murder trial, which ended in an
last July, and a juror interviewed afterward said it
did not come up during deliberations either.

It seems to me that race may have played a bigger role in Dunn’s
shooting of Davis, which grew out of an argument over loud music,
than it did in Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin, which grew out of a
violent struggle that Martin seems to have started. It’s not just
that Dunn is “whiter” than Zimmerman, a Hispanic with an
Afro-Peruvian great-grandfather, but that his perception of Davis’
allegedly violent intent may have been colored by the fact that he
was confronting a bunch of black teenagers (Davis and his friends).
In Zimmerman’s case, by contrast, people speculated that he mistook
Martin for a burglar and decided to follow him at least partly
because he was black. Even if that’s true, Martin’s skin color had
nothing to do with whether he started the fight and was smacking
Zimmerman’s head against the concrete, thereby posing a potentially
deadly threat, when Zimmerman fired his gun (although Martin’s
perception of Zimmerman’s racially tinged suspicions may help
explain how the fight started).

Presumably Dunn’s murder trial, which began yesterday,
will involve “the mechanics of Florida’s self-defense laws
and how juries apply them,” as the Times says. It
certainly should. But that does not mean any special aspect of
Florida’s law will determine the outcome. Judging from the
opening arguments
, the case, like Zimmerman’s, comes down to
dueling narratives that go to the question of whether the defendant
reasonably believed firing his gun was necessary to prevent death
or serious injury. According to the prosecution, there was no
threat at all, let alone a deadly one.

The undisputed part of the story is that Dunn pulled into the
gas station, which included a convenience store, so that his
girlfriend could buy wine and potato chips. He was irritated by the
music blasting from the SUV in which Davis was riding with his
friends and asked them to turn it down. Initially they did, but
soon the volume was back up, apparently at the urging of Davis, who
said, “Fuck that nigger.” (That’s according to Davis’ friends as
well as Dunn.) Davis and Dunn got into an argument, and Dunn ended
up firing seven rounds, three of which struck Davis.

Dunn claims Davis threatened to kill him and was getting out of
the SUV, armed with something—a shotgun, a lead pipe, or maybe a
stick—when he fired his handgun, which he had retrieved from his
glove compartment because he felt threatened. Police found no
weapons in the SUV or at the scene, although Dunn’s lawyer, Cory
Strolla, claims Davis’ friends had time to ditch whatever it was
and that police did not search the area near the gas station until
days later, by which time the weapon easily could have been moved
again. Police did find a camera tripod, which a frightened man
might mistake for a gun, a lead pipe, or a stick.

According to the prosecution, Dunn was not frightened at all; he
was angry. “[Davis] never threatened the defendant,” Assistant
State Attorney John Guy (who was also one of the prosecutors in
Zimmerman’s trial) said yesterday. “He disrespected him.” In
addition to the missing weapon, Dunn’s defense is undermined by the
fact that he left the gas station after the shooting and did not
call police, even after his girlfriend saw a TV news report about
the shooting that said someone had died. The police tracked Dunn
down the next day via a license plate number reported by a witness.
Strolla said Dunn, who was in Jacksonville for his son’s wedding,
planned to call the police after he got back to his home in
Satellite Beach. This does not seem like the behavior of a man who
believed he had used deadly force in a legitimate act of

The right to “stand your ground” when you are attacked in a
public place—which Florida’s self-defense law, like those of many
other states, notoriously
protects—did not come up yesterday. It could make a difference in
Dunn’s trial (unlike
) if the prosecution argues that Dunn should simply
have driven away when Davis threatened him. But at this point the
prosecution seems keen to deny that Davis threatened anything but
Dunn’s pride. If there was no threat, Dunn cannot possibly claim
self-defense, with or without a duty to retreat. And even if
Florida imposed a duty to retreat, Dunn could argue that he was
unable to safely withdraw when confronted by an armed man who
threatened to kill him. The Times mentions “Stand Your
Ground” twice but does not explain why it is relevant to the

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