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Mistrial in Jordan Davis murder case revives debate on race and self-defense

February 17, 2014 at 6:17 PM EDT
In 2012, Michael Dunn fired 10 bullets at an SUV after an argument with four black teenagers, claiming self-defense. Jordan Davis, an unarmed 17-year-old, was killed. While Dunn was convicted of attempted murder, a jury declared a mistrial for a separate murder charge. Gwen Ifill talks to the Advancement Project’s Judith Browne Dianis and David Weinstein of Clarke Silverglate, who offer two views on the influence of race in the case.
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TRANSCRIPT

GWEN IFILL: Over the weekend, the verdict in another Florida murder case raised hackles in the continuing debate about race and self-defense.

Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old Jacksonville software developer, who is white, was convicted on three counts of attempted murder. But a mistrial was declared in a separate charge that he murdered 17-year-old Jordan Davis, who was black.

In November 2012, Dunn pulled into a gas station where four teenagers were parked in an SUV listening to loud music. After an argument, Dunn fired 10 bullets at the SUV. Three of the teens, who were unarmed, were not hit, but Davis was and later died.

We take a closer look at the verdict now with Judith Browne-Dianis, a civil rights lawyer and co-director of The Advancement Project, a civil rights organization, and David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor in Miami-Dade County. He’s now a partner at the Clarke Silverglate law firm in Miami.

Why did this verdict cause such a stir, Judith Browne-Dianis?

JUDITH BROWNE-DIANIS, Advancement Project: Well, because it was a mixed bag, right?

We did get some convictions for the attempted murder charge and the initial (INAUDIBLE) charge. But the fact that another person in Florida has been able to kill an innocent unarmed young black teenager is where there’s a problem.

There’s no conviction on it. It’s a mistrial. And, you know, at the end of the day, there’s large concern that this so-called loud case, really was missing in that is that it’s loud thug music. And what underlies thug music…

GWEN IFILL: Which is how he described it.

JUDITH BROWNE-DIANIS: That’s right, which is the way the defendant, Mr. Dunn, described it, because that is really important, and that evidence of what was really going on in his mind really wasn’t explored in the case.

GWEN IFILL: David Weinstein, help us explain why there was an attempted murder conviction, but not a first-degree murder conviction in the same case.

DAVID WEINSTEIN, Clarke Silverglate: I think it’s because of the break in time between really two independent acts that occur.

The first act that occurred was whatever prompted Dunn to fire his gun into that car the first time. And you heard it from the gunshots that were recorded from the convenience store. Then there’s a break and then he fires off an additional six or seven rounds.

The jury was able in their mind — or at least from where I’m sitting — to differentiate between those two independent acts. They were hung, they were unable to reach a verdict on the murder charge because somebody in the jury room or some people in the jury room believed that there was a self-defense that was portrayed by the defendant and was unable to broken by the prosecution.

However, the actions that Dunn took afterwards by shooting into that car, by taking reckless disregard for the lives of the young men who were in that car, the jury didn’t have a problem with that. They found that that was something that, although premeditated, was a reckless act that was taken out with abandonment and that he should be punished for that.

And that’s why they came back with a verdict on that. So, although there’s two separate verdicts, there were really two distinct acts that were taking place.

GWEN IFILL: Judith Browne-Dianis, do you think there were two distinct acts, in that if what you said earlier is the case, that people — that his perception that there was a threat influenced the outcome of the case?

JUDITH BROWNE-DIANIS: Right.

Well, clearly, he got on the stand. You know, you don’t — you rarely see the defendant getting on the stand, but he was the only one that could talk about why he defended himself. And that’s where the problem lies with us, and it’s really a bigger issue than this case.

It’s about how do we bring race into these kinds of cases when we know that he not only said this thug music comment, but then also wrote racially charged letters from his jail cell?  And so the jury doesn’t get the benefit of that evidence. The jury doesn’t get to understand where his mind was at the time.

At the same time, this is a systemic issue, because we have to think about the fact that the jury didn’t get to hear it, the jury credited his evidence over the other young black teenagers, that the judge didn’t have this kind of information come in. The prosecutors didn’t try to get this information in.

And so, you know, this is where we have a problem because our criminal justice system should have the benefit of all of the evidence that is important to making a decision in a case.

GWEN IFILL: Well, David Weinstein, what about that idea?

There were other people who testified, obviously the defendant, but also the other teenagers who survived the shooting. What is your sense of what we just heard Judith Browne-Dianis say, that there was a different weight put on their testimony?

DAVID WEINSTEIN: I would think so, because the jurors are instructed that you don’t give any more weight or any more credibility to one witness over the other. You evaluate each witness independently, and you assign whatever weight you want to assign to that witness.

It’s not a matter of numbers. If there are 15 people who come in and testify one way, but only one person that testifies another way, you’re entitled to give each of those groups of people the same weight.

I think what the jury focused on here was, do we believe what Dunn said from the stand, and did the prosecution poke enough holes in his testimony for us to disbelieve that he was in fear for his life when he fired off that first shot?

Somebody in that jury room, one or two or more of those jurors, believed what he said was his self-defense. Now, you don’t have to take into account that what the other men in the car had to say, because no one other than Dunn testified that he thought he saw the muzzle of the gun. So, it all comes down to Dunn. Do you believe Dunn?

The people in the car, there was no other weapon found. There was no additional evidence that was there. But the…

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask — but could I ask you just a question about Judith Browne-Dianis said, which is, do you think race was a factor in what they saw and who was more credible in this case?

DAVID WEINSTEIN: I don’t think so.

You had a mixed component on the jury. There were all different races and ethnicities and genders represented on the jury. There was nobody that was saying that these young men attacked him. There was certainly evidence that there was loud music that was being played. And he was offended by in his words the loud music. And, yes, after the fact and in letters that he wrote, he referred to it as thug music.

But what his testimony was, was that he was offended by the loud music and he asked them to turn it down. I don’t think that they wanted race to become an issue because it was, do you believe the defendant in what he said or do you think that he was defending himself?

GWEN IFILL: The part about self-defense is important, Judith Browne-Dianis, because, in Florida, we know we became familiar with the stand your ground laws, which were not invoked in this case, except in jury instructions. Do you think that had any outcome — any effect on the outcome?

JUDITH BROWNE-DIANIS: Sure.

Stand your ground becomes a cover for racial bias. What it does is that it allows the person — you know, all threats are in the eye of the beholder, right?  And self-defense is about what you felt at the time. And so to disregard the fact that this, again, wasn’t just loud music, but loud thug music — you know, we just had a similar incident with Richard Sherman, the football player, being called a thug, which is now becoming the codeword for the N-word.

GWEN IFILL: Except in this case — David Weinstein, I want to ask you about this as well, the stand your ground defense — it didn’t actually come up in the trial.

DAVID WEINSTEIN: No, it didn’t because this wasn’t a stand your ground case. This was a self-defense case.

And I think what we’re all getting lost in this that there’s a distinct difference between stand your ground and self-defense. Stand your ground has now become a colloquialism for every single self-defense case. He didn’t allege that he was standing his ground. He alleged that he was defending himself.

Stand your ground comes from a term that was inserted in legislation enacted in 2005 by the Florida legislature that allowed people to extend what is called the Castle Doctrine, the right to defend yourself in your own home, from an aggressor to a place of outside of your home.

And that’s what stand your ground is. He didn’t argue that he was standing his ground. He argued that, in his mind, what he believed he saw, subjectively, was that was going to inflict some serious injury on him, and so he reacted. It’s not — it’s a subjective belief. It’s only in his mind.

So, he’s the only person who it’s important for the jury to decide whether he’s telling the truth or not. It’s not as if the other young men were the aggressors against him. That’s where stand your ground would come into play and that’s where somebody would stand their ground.

Here, it’s a subjective impression in his mind: Somebody’s trying to kill me. I’m going to react.

There’s no standing his ground.

GWEN IFILL: I think you both agree on the subjectivity of this. And that, of course, is at the heart of this debate.

Judith Browne-Dianis, David Weinstein, thank you both very much.

JUDITH BROWNE-DIANIS: Thank you. Thanks.

DAVID WEINSTEIN: Thank you.