Verdict In Florida's Loud Music Trial Causes Uproar Over Self Defense Laws
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Today, we want to spend some time talking about that controversial verdict in the trial of Michael Dunn. He is the Florida man who fired into an SUV back in 2012, with four unarmed teenagers inside. He killed one of the teens, then-17-year-old Jordan Davis. Apparently, Dunn was angry because he felt the boys' music was too loud, and he decided they should turn it down. And then a verbal altercation ensued. That's why you might have seen this referred to as the loud music trial.
On Saturday, Dunn was convicted on three counts of attempted second-degree murder, but the jury was deadlocked on charges that Michael Dunn murdered Jordan Davis. And there are racial overturns - Michael Dunn is white, the four teens in the car are or were African-American; and thus, the comparisons with the trial of George Zimmerman, who was acquitted last year of all charges in the shooting death of another unarmed Florida teenager, named Trayvon Martin. We wanted to talk more about this and where the case goes from here, so we've called Larry Hannan. He is the courts reporter for the Florida Times-Union, and he's been following this. Larry, thank you for joining us.
LARRY HANNAN: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Also joining us once again, Corey Dade. He is a contributing editor to the online journal The Root. He's with us in Washington, D.C. Corey, thank you for joining us as well.
COREY DADE: Thank you.
MARTIN: So, Larry Hannan, let's start with you. As we mentioned, this has been called the loud music case because Dunn apparently decided these young men - their music was too loud. They were both in a Florida gas station, and they - what, then, did the prosecutors say happened next, and what was Dunn's defense?
HANNAN: Well, what happened next is that Dunn asked the teenagers to turn down their music. The teenager in the front seat did turn the music all the way off; at which point Davis, who was in the backseat, cursed and told the other person in the car to turn the music back up. At which point, Dunn and Davis started arguing with each other. What happened next is where it varies. Dunn claims Davis had a shotgun, got out of the car and was moving threateningly towards him.
The other teens in the car say he never got out of the car, there was no gun; and that Dunn basically screamed, you can't talk to me like that! when he heard Davis curse, and pulled out his own gun and started blasting at the car. He fired 10 shots in all. The first three were the ones that hit Davis, killing him. But then as the teen in the driver's seat tried to drive away and flee, Dunn continued to fire at the back of the car as it was fleeing - which is why, I think, they convicted him of the attempted murder charges.
MARTIN: Now, he claims that Davis got out of the car with a gun. Was there ever any gun found, and did the forensic evidence suggest that he'd ever gotten out of the car? Was there any evidence to support that?
HANNAN: There was never a gun found either at the scene or in the Durango that Davis was in, or anything else. And the medical examiner specifically testified that not only was Davis sitting in the car when he was shot, he was actually leaning away from Dunn, suggesting he was trying to duck down to get away from him.
Dunn's lawyers claim that the other teens hid the shotgun before police arrived, but there were people - there were witnesses in the gas station who said, we never saw a gun. And they went to an adjacent parking lot to flee and came back about two, three minutes later. There were two people in that parking lot who saw the car come and go. And they said, we never saw them - any of the teenagers take a gun out of that car.
MARTIN: Do we - have the jurors spoken? Do we have any sense of why they arrived at the decision that they did, and did the so-called Stand Your Ground statute play any role in this?
HANNAN: The jurors have not spoken. I was in the trial throughout and I will say, the day before they finally reached the verdict - it was 32 hours of deliberation - several of the jurors were in tears at the end of the day. It was pretty clear that they had been arguing strongly back there. We don't know, you know, what the arguments were about. But I personally think there were probably several people who were resistant to convicting, and several others who were adamant that they should convict for murder.
So it seems as though there was a real split there. Other than that, it's just tough to say. You know, the jurors' names have not been released. We don't know who they are. And so until they choose to come forward and talk, we're not going to know. And I suspect with as much condemnation as this verdict has gotten, the jurors may be very reluctant to come forward.
MARTIN: It was a racially mixed jury, was it not?
HANNAN: It was. It was four white men, four white women, two black women, one Hispanic male and one Asian woman.
MARTIN: Now, I'd like to play a short clip from Lucia McBath, who is the mother of Jordan Davis. And here she's talking about the verdict and Michael Dunn. Here it is.
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LUCIA MCBATH: I will pray for him, and I've asked my family to pray for him. But we are so grateful for the charges that have been brought against him. We're so grateful for the truth.
MARTIN: Corey, you can hear the emotion in her voice. And I do want to mention at this point that you are related to this family. And we are speaking to you on both levels, both as a reporter and also as a member of this family. Your stepfather is Lucia McBath's uncle. So I wanted to ask, is the family satisfied with this verdict?
DADE: Not at all. Not at all. As much as the family appreciates that the jury did the right thing in convicting Dunn of attempted murder, they are not at all satisfied that the jury made the right decision in being hung on the question of first-degree murder because it's that charge that actually addresses whether or not justice should be done to Jordan. And that is the very charge that they basically punted on.
MARTIN: What has been the reaction more broadly? I want to mention the online - The Root is an online publication. It's very much in tune with what's happening on social media as a reporting tool. What's been the reaction?
DADE: Well, the reaction has been huge. You know, it's been percolating through the sort of so-called Black Twitter, through social media, everywhere. It is - it has been as much a galvanizing case as the George Zimmerman trial was last year.
MARTIN: To what end, though? Is there a through line to the reaction?
DADE: Well, I think the through...
MARTIN: Do others share the family's view that this was not an appropriate...
DADE: I think the through line is outrage. The through line is yet again, a black life, a black, young life is devalued in the courts. And this was seen as a case that was, if not a slam-dunk, then certainly a case, at least on Twitter, at least a case that was far more clear-cut in the category of guilty for the shooter in this case than the Zimmerman trial was.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the verdict in the case of the so-called loud music case. This is where a Florida man named Michael Dunn shot into an SUV containing four unarmed teenagers. One of them was killed. Our guests are Corey Dade. He's a contributing editor to The Root. And also with us, Larry Hannan, courts reporter for the Florida Times-Union who covered the case throughout. So, Larry, what about locally? What is the reaction there?
HANNAN: I think the reaction's been shock really. There was a - you know, Angela Corey, the elected state attorney, tried this case herself. And a lot of the cynics said, you know, she's doing this mainly because it's a slam-dunk, easy conviction. It's a chance to burnish her credentials after she took a real hit for the George Zimmerman case. And there was also the fact that they had two very experienced homicide prosecutors doing this while Cory Strolla, the defense attorney, was not nearly as experienced and was really working from a shoestring budget. Going in, I think most people expected him to be convicted of the highest charges or at least be convicted of second-degree murder. And the fact that it happened this way - and it was really a verdict that pleased no one - just was a shock to everyone. And a lot of people are asking, what happened?
MARTIN: You know, sometimes people are privy to information in the public that the jury is not. Is that a factor here that people outside of the courtroom are aware of certain attributes or information that informs their opinion that people within the jury room were not, Larry?
HANNAN: Absolutely. Race did not come into this much at all. Angela Corey specifically said she didn't want to make this a racial case, which a lot of people are questioning. And also, you know, Dunn had written a lot of letters from jail that just kind of made people shake their heads. They had racial observations. He referred to Jordan Davis as a thug and also insulted Jordan Davis' father. He insulted the black people he was in jail with.
Those were not introduced at the trial. And the other knock, which a lot of people feel, is that we didn't really get to know Jordan Davis at all during the trial. One pastor down here made the point to me afterwards that we learned a lot about Michael Dunn, but the only thing prosecutors said about Jordan Davis was he had a big mouth, but that didn't mean he deserved to die. And we never saw his baby pictures or learned about his first step or really learn much of anything about this young man.
MARTIN: Why weren't these letters introduced because they did seem to speak to state of mind? I mean, they did - at one point in a letter that was publicly released that Michael Dunn sent to his daughter, he suggested that it would be appropriate for lots of people to go around killing, you know, similarly situated young men, young black men. Why weren't those introduced at trial?
HANNAN: You know, I don't know. There was the argument that there were, you know, prejudicial, that they didn't have any bearing on the case itself, that, you know, it could inflame the jury. And there may be some truth to that, but, you know, it's also the case that prosecutors didn't really want to get into race. They were fairly adamant about that. They briefly asked jurors during jury selection about their racial views. But even then, they were saying, we don't want to ask this, we don't think this is a racial case. And that's mystified a lot of people who think that had these four teenagers been white, this would not have happened.
MARTIN: I want to hear from Corey on this. But just briefly, I do want to play a short clip from Dunn's attorney, Cory Strolla, who suggested that if the jury did not convict in Davis' death, that he should've been acquitted entirely. And here is a clip of him.
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CORY STROLLA: If a jury would have decided self-defense was an issue with count one, Mr. Davis, it would have applied to every single person in that car. So that may be an issue that we have to look at.
MARTIN: So we do understand the prosecutor said she's going to retry this case with an eye toward achieving a conviction on murder is that - because the jury deadlocked. So what are people saying about that, Larry?
HANNAN: I think most people know she's - you know, there's the argument that it's a waste. He's already going to spend the rest of his life in prison for the attempted murders, but I think that's shortsighted. I think, you know, this was a murder, and you do have to try someone for this crime. You know, there is the fact that you can't just sort of shrug off and say, well, he's going to spend the rest of his life in jail, 'cause there is a teenager who's dead. And, you know, there is no official ruling that Michael Dunn is responsible for that. And I think that has to be dealt with.
MARTIN: Well, Corey Dade, very briefly, is there information about Jordan Davis that the family wishes had been brought out at trial that was not?
DADE: Well, I think - you know, I think we've already discussed it here. I think the - you know, humanizing him is always good for the jury. I think what the fall down was in this case is the same that it was in the Zimmerman trial in that with Trayvon Martin, just like with Jordan Davis, the jury wasn't able to really humanize the victim here. And as a result, it's going to be harder to convict the shooter.
MARTIN: Corey Dade is a contributing editor to The Root, with us in Washington, D.C. Larry Hannan is the courts reporter for the Florida Times-Union, with us from member station WJCT in Jacksonville, Florida. Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.
HANNAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.