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Just eight months after the infamous Trayvon Martin shooting by George Zimmerman, another spontaneous gun-related death occurred, again in Florida, outside a convenience store in Jacksonville. The issue igniting the conflict was loud music. Defendant Michael Dunn, at the time a 45-year-old software engineer, carried a 9mm handgun in the glove compartment of his Volkswagen Jetta. He held a permit to carry this gun, which was the weapon used to kill 17-year-old Jordan Davis, one of four teens in an SUV playing hip-hop music that Dunn found objectionable. Like the Zimmerman case, Dunn stated later in court that he "feared for his life." Also like the previous shooting, the victim was found to have been unarmed. This case demonstrates how the escalation of a single event can lead to tragedy, and how justified self-defense can quickly cross the line into malicious intent and unjustified use of deadly force. It also provides something of a checklist of actions (or inactions, in this case) not to do following a self-defense encounter involving a weapon(s).
On November 23, 2012 - Black Friday - it was dark by 7:30 p.m. Michael Dunn and his fiancée Rhonda Rouer pulled into the parking lot of a Jacksonville, Florida convenience store. A red Dodge Durango SUV was already parked there, and rumbling bass notes emanated from its speakers. Rouer later testified that Dunn commented, "I hate that thug music," before pulling into the space immediately next to the passenger's side of the Durango. At trial, Dunn would insist he hadn't called it "thug music," that he would have called it "rap crap." At the time of the incident, Rouer responded, "I know," and kissed him before going inside for a bottle of wine and a bag of chips. Rouer was standing at the cash register when she heard the "pop, pop, pop" of shots fired. By the time she ran outside, the red Durango had vanished. Dunn was putting his pistol back in the glove compartment and desperately waving for her to get in the car. As they sped off, a witness memorized Dunn's license plate number and gave it to the cashier. Dunn and Rouer went to a nearby hotel where they had been staying. The day before, they had had traveled up Florida's east coast to attend the wedding of Dunn's son. After returning to the hotel, they walked their dog and ordered a pizza. Dunn mixed a rum and coke. He never called 911. Sometime in the night, Dunn checked the news on his phone and discovered someone had died in the shooting. At trial, he told jurors that upon finding this out, he immediately went to the bathroom and vomited. Rouer learned about the homicide shortly thereafter when she turned on the local news. They left early for their home in Satellite Beach, some two-and-a-half hours south, still without notifying authorities. Rouer said that at that point, she expected to be arrested, any time, along with Dunn. Detectives from Jacksonville tracked Dunn to his home, thanks to the witness who had memorized his license plate. They called Dunn on his cell phone and asked him to remove his shirt and come outside with his hands up. He did, and he was apprehended. Believing he was justified, he made recorded statements to detectives without the advice of an attorney - until it became clear to him that he was in big trouble. Inside that red Durango SUV, there had been four young men, including 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Earlier in the evening they had gone to the mall "girl shopping," according to one of Davis' friends. They had stopped at the convenience store for some gum and smokes. One of the young men, Tevin Thompson, said Dunn pulled his Volkswagen Jetta so close to the Durango passenger door, he couldn't get out. Dunn asked Thompson to turn down the music. Thompson complied, but Davis, sitting in the rear passenger seat, protested. He told Thompson to turn the music back up and started cursing at Dunn. In attempt to diffuse the situation, Thompson testified that he tried to raise the car window, but by then, Dunn had rolled down his window and said, "Are you talking to me?" More words were exchanged. Davis' friends couldn't testify to exactly what was said, but they did admit at trial that Davis had a reputation for being hot-headed. Dunn testified that Davis said words like "cracker," and "I should kill that mother -," and "You're dead, -." Dunn is the only one to claim to have heard those statements. According to Dunn, Davis reached under his seat and brought up something that looked like a shotgun. He said Davis opened his door and started to get out. "You're not going to kill me, you son of a bitch," Dunn claims to have said while he retrieved his pistol from the glove compartment. However, a witness at trial testified that Dunn said something different: "You're not going to talk to me like that." No one else saw Davis get out of the Durango. Dunn took his 9mm pistol out of its holster and racked a round before firing. He testified at trial that he felt it unsafe to keep a pistol loaded with a chambered round. The driver of the Durango, Tommy Stornes, stated, "I saw Michael Dunn's mouth move, and then I saw the gun. To my recollection, he started to fire. I knew I was in danger, so I started to back out." Leland Brunson shared the back seat with Davis, and he said he saw Dunn pull out a handgun and pull the slide back. While the outside video surveillance cameras did not work, the cameras inside the convenience store captured audio of the shooting. Jurors heard the "pop, pop, pop," that Rouer had heard. The recording captured evidence of ten shots in total, in three bursts, with a significant pause between the second and third bursts. The bullet holes in the Durango told the rest of the story. The first burst of three bullets entered the rear passenger door. Two bullets struck Davis in the leg. A third entered his abdomen striking his ribs, diaphragm, liver, aorta and lungs. The second burst of bullets lodged in the front passenger door as the Durango raced backwards out of the parking spot. Dunn fired the third burst as the Durango sped away. He had gotten out of his car and took a knee before firing the final rounds - a "police position," as one witness described it. While Dunn and Rouer sped off to their hotel, Stornes drove the Durango to an adjoining parking lot, where he and Thompson exited to check on their friend, who was quickly bleeding to death in the back seat, gasping for air. If there was a shotgun, or something like it, this is when the young men had a chance to get rid of it, according to Dunn's attorney Cory Strolla. After about 90 seconds, they rushed back to the convenience store and asked witnesses to call for help. At trial, Assistant State Attorney John Guy suggested that Jordan Davis was declared dead right around the time Michael Dunn was pouring himself a rum and Coke. Prosecutors charged Dunn with one count of first degree murder for killing Jordan Davis, three counts of first degree attempted murder for firing shots that could have killed the other three young men, and a fourth charge of "shooting or throwing deadly missiles" for firing at the retreating Durango. It took two trials for prosecutors to get guilty verdicts on all the counts. The first jury agreed that Dunn's final shots at the retreating Durango constituted attempted murder (although they opted for the lesser charge of second degree rather than first). They deadlocked, however, on the murder charge itself. According to a juror who spoke to the press, two jurors held out for acquittal. Months later, a second jury found Dunn guilty of the murder of Jordan Davis.
Don West, veteran criminal defense attorney and National Trial Counsel for CCW Safe, says its notable that the same jury that deadlocked over whether there was reasonable doubt on the murder charge was of one mind regarding the attempted murder charges. "This is a case about crossing a line and losing the justification for defending yourself with deadly force, even if you were justified at first." In our series "The Four Elements of Self-Defense" we explore how location, escalation, reasonable fear, and post-incident actions can affect the legal defense in self-defense shootings. This is our second of three cases where we'll explore the use of deadly force in and around automobiles. Don West says the Dunn case provides concealed carriers with a "list of how not to act." In the next installment of "The Four Elements of Self-Defense," we will explore how the location of the shooting of Jordan Davis factored into the legal defense of Michael Dunn. Among the defenses cited by Dunn's defense attorney was Florida's "stand-your-ground" law, which establishes the right of a person to defend him- or herself against threats or perceived threats, even to the extent of using lethal force, and regardless of whether safely backing away from the situation may have been possible.