(The Root) — Just two days after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman, Jacksonville, Fla., lawyer Cory Strolla stood in the Florida State Court hallway and spoke to a huddle of reporters.
“I worry they’re going to say, ‘We lost Zimmerman, so let’s get Michael Dunn,’ ” Strolla said, referring to Florida State Attorney Angela Corey.
Strolla, an experienced defense lawyer, said he was worried that Dunn, his client, will get the punishment that Zimmerman did not. In November 2012, Dunn, a 46-year-old white Florida software developer, shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis, an unarmed black boy, after a verbal confrontation about loud music in a Jacksonville convenience-store parking lot. But victims-rights and gun control advocates, Jordan’s parents and others watching the case fear that Strolla is terribly wrong and another Florida civilian with a gun will not be punished for taking the life of yet another unarmed black teen because, like Zimmerman, Dunn says he was afraid.
Sometime between now and September, Dunn is expected to seek immunity — that’s an all-out free pass on any criminal or financial penalties — in a “Stand your ground” hearing in front of a Florida judge. Dunn will have to convince the judge that he feared for his life. If that effort fails, a Florida judge and jury in one of the most conservative and gun-loving parts of the state will wade through an admixture of stereotypes and suspicion, as well as Florida gun-possession and weapons-use policies, to determine Dunn’s fate.
Some combination of that same cocktail sent Zimmerman home a free man. So Jordan’s parents, gun control and victims-rights advocates are all asking the same question: Could it happen again?
“As crazy as that sounds,” said Sam Hoover, a staff attorney at the San Francisco-based nonprofit Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, “that’s a distinct possibility. The reality is that Florida law gives these shooters an escape.”
Zimmerman’s lawyers did not make an explicit “Stand your ground” claim before his trial began, but testimony about the law was introduced. And because it is a part of Florida’s legal code, “Stand your ground” language is included in the jury’s instructions, something that could not have happened before the 2005 law was passed.
Ladd Everitt, communications director for the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, a nonprofit lobbying group, bluntly described what could happen as Dunn’s case moves forward.
“What people have to understand is that ‘Stand your ground’ legalized murder,” he said. “If you happen to be a concealed-carry permit holder, well, you might get off scot-free, even if someone is dead.”
Jordan’s parents, already carrying the burden of losing their son to a legally armed and emboldened Florida civilian, are, like many other Americans, reeling from the Zimmerman verdict. They have, according to their lawyer, grown particularly close to Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s parents.
Together, the two sets of divorced parents form a fraternity to which no one seeks entry. Both have lobbied Congress for gun control reforms and described concealed-carry permit laws and the “Stand your ground” laws as the legal equivalent of a plague. Right now, Jordan’s parents aren’t talking to reporters. They are trying to offer Martin and Fulton support while hoping and praying that a Florida court will see what happened to their son differently.
“The facts of the two cases are very different,” said John Phillips, a Jacksonville lawyer representing Jordan’s parents. “But the tragedy and the set of laws that I think we all saw last week compound the Trayvon Martin tragedy, they are the same. So it’s not clear — not in the way that it ought to be — how much Dunn really has to fear.”
Day at the Mall Ends Tragically
Nov. 23, 2012, Jordan and three friends set out on a parent-free trip to the mall. Davis’ friend, a teenager with access to a Dodge SUV, did the driving. On the way home, one of the four wanted to stop for a pack of cigarettes, according to police reports and court records.
While three of the boys, including Jordan, waited for the fourth to emerge from the convenience store, they listened to music. A black Volkswagen pulled up. The car’s driver, Dunn, told his girlfriend that he hated the “thug music” coming from the SUV next to them. The woman hopped out to grab a bottle of wine. It wasn’t long before Dunn barked at the teens in the SUV, telling them that their music was too loud.
One boy turned the music down. Jordan took off his seat belt and turned it back up. Dunn started yelling. Witnesses heard Dunn scream that Jordan could “not talk to me that way.” Within minutes, Dunn pulled a gun and, after positioning himself inside his car, fired at the SUV as its teenage driver attempted to flee. Eight of Dunn’s bullets punctured the car, coming dangerously close to the heads and limbs of the teenagers inside. Two entered Jordan’s body, lodging in his chest and groin. Dunn sped away from the scene.
The next time Ron Davis saw his son, the teen was lying in a hospital trauma room covered up to his chin with a white hospital sheet. Jordan was already dead.
Witnesses at the convenience store managed to jot down Dunn’s plate number. It didn’t take law enforcement long to find him at his Satellite Beach, Fla., condo, about two-and-a-half hours south of Jacksonville, and bring him in for questioning.
When they did, Dunn explained that the teens had “defied” his “orders.” Dunn’s initial lawyer also told local reporters that Dunn had fired on the car 10 times because he was certain he had seen the muzzle of a shotgun emerging from one of the SUV’s rear windows. And Dunn was certain that the black “men” in the car had summoned gang members to come to their aid. Dunn, said the lawyer (who has since been replaced by Strolla), had reason to fear for his life. Sheriff’s deputies in Jacksonville didn’t agree and arrested Dunn on the spot.
Law-enforcement officials investigating the shooting never found a shotgun and say that none of the teens, including Jordan, was armed. They were, in fact, the kind of smartphone- and video game-obsessed teens, model and average students, who had nothing to do with gangs, Jordan’s parents and their lawyer insist.
Jordan was a natural charmer with the looks to pull what Rolling Stone called a “smoking-hot girlfriend,” but also the manners, family and grades to make his friend’s parents welcome him into their homes. He was the son, Ron Davis said earlier this year, that every father wants and whose death would transform most parents into staunch and vocal opponents of Florida’s gun laws.
Florida Has the Most Concealed-Weapon Permits
Dunn’s alleged behavior confirms what gun control advocates like Kristen Rand, legislative director at the Washington, D.C.-based Violence Policy Center, already think about the more than 1 million men and women in Florida – more than any other state – who have been given permission by the state to carry a concealed weapon.
“The whole theory was to put more guns in the hands of ‘good guys’ who were going to use those guns against ‘bad guys,’ and what we are seeing is, that has no basis in reality,” Rand said. “Concealed-carry permit holders, it seems, are a rather paranoid lot who regularly pull their guns on people, shoot people and escalate situations that might be a fistfight into a deadly situation.”
Rand admits that her opinion is not based on a definitive look at state data. National Rifle Association lobbyists have managed to bar the state from collecting or distributing anything more than the most basic information about permit holders. The Violence Policy Center does maintain its own database of shootings involving concealed-carry permit holders, based on what can be culled from news reports. All told, 516 people have been killed by shooters with concealed-carry permits, according to the center’s data.
Both Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are a part of that victim list.
Still, Florida isn’t just one of 49 states with a concealed-carry law. It has been a sort of gun-policy laboratory for the NRA, said Hoover, of the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
In 1987 Florida became the nation’s first “shall issue” state, meaning that law-enforcement officials are required to issue concealed-carry permits to almost everyone who requests one, Hoover said. (This is in contrast to a “may issue” state, where the applicant needs a reason to carry a gun.) People with felony convictions and those who have been committed to a mental hospital are the only exceptions. But smaller-scale criminals, stalkers and even people with known mental illnesses must be issued permits. The NRA pushed for the change, Hoover said.
“Stand Your Ground” Laws Don’t Deter Crime
Then, in 2005, the NRA convinced Florida’s legislators to change the state’s self-defense standard. When they did, not only did people in Florida become able to stand their ground in the face of danger, but state prosecutors also somehow had to prove that the shooter was not afraid in order to send the person to prison.
Today more than 30 states have adopted some version of the same “Stand your ground” law.
A 2012 Texas A&M University study found that “Stand your ground” laws in Florida and 19 other states didn’t deter violent crime. Instead, the study found a clear increase in homicides in those states — about 700 additional killings nationwide each year.