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February 18, 2014

Mistrial in murder of black Florida teen revives debate on race and self-defense

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This weekend, a Florida jury convicted 47-year-old Jacksonville software developer Michael Dunn on three counts of attempted murder, but declared a mistrial on a charge that he murdered 17-year-old black teenager Jordan Davis in a case that has drawn comparison to the killing of Trayvon Martin.

In November 2012, Dunn, who is white, 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.

Race is a factor in the trial, especially after Dunn’s fiancée testified on behalf of the prosecution that he told her, “I hate that thug music,” before she left him in the car to go into the gas station’s store.

“[This] 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 code word for the N-word,” said Judith Browne-Dianis, a civil rights lawyer and co-director of the Advancement Project.

Dunn also used racially charged language in his letters from prison, though this was not presented as evidence in court.

The verdict caused a stir because while Dunn was convicted of serious crimes, the mistrial on the murder charge means the prosecution may have try Dunn for murder again in a separate trial.

“[The jury was] 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,” explained David Weinstein, a former state and federal prosecutor in Florida’s Miami-Dade County.


Warm up questions
  1. What is your definition of justice? Give an example of a time when justice was either served or not served in your own life or the life of someone you know.
  2. Should a person be able to defend him or herself is he or she is in danger of being hurt or even killed? Should he or she be able to use any weapon (including guns) to keep him or herself safe?
  3. Do you feel that people of different races are treated equally in today’s society? Give an example when you have experienced or seen unequal treatment.
Discussion questions
  1. Do you agree with the jury’s verdict? Do you think justice was served in this trial? Why or why not?
  2. Do you think that race is a factor in this case? Why or why not?
  3. Should crimes that are motivated by prejudice or hatred for a certain group of people be treated differently than other crimes? Why or why not?
  4. Dunn claimed that his actions were motivated by self-defense. Do you think people acting in self-defense have the right to use deadly force? If so, when do you think deadly force is a legitimate action of self-defense, and when is it not?
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