In her closing argument in the Michael Dunn murder trial, prosecutor Erin Wolkfson said “Jordan Davis never had a chance.” She was partially right. Dunn fired 10 bullets at point blank range into the red Dodge Durango on that fateful November Friday afternoon in 2012. But truthfully, none of the teens really stood a chance. They were arguing over “that rap music crap.” The other teens got lucky and escaped unharmed, but Jordan Davis was hit by 3 bullets. When the gunfire ended, Jordan Davis lay dead in the SUV; Dunn, on the other hand, left the scene guns blazing. He and his fiancé headed to their Jacksonville hotel room where they ordered pizza, walked their dog, had a few cocktails and went to sleep. He never called the police.
That Dunn never called the police should have foreshadowed the Davis verdict for me, but truthfully at first, it didn’t. Looking at it logistically, of course Michael Dunn would be found guilty of the murder of Jordan Davis. How could he not? Dunn blew away someone’s child at pointblank range in broad daylight. Sure, he’d claimed self-defense, but to me, a Black woman, his words and the evidence just didn’t support that.
But as the deliberations continued and Thursday came and went and so did Friday, I began to think: Michael Dunn didn’t think seriously enough of his own actions to call the police! It was like he shot road kill. He kept going about his day: He told his fiancé he shot up a car full of Black kids, had a drink or two, walked his dog and went to sleep. That played over and over in my head. If one man could think its ok to gun down a Black kid and go about his business, it was possible, no, make that likely, that other people could think that way too.
As Saturday drew on, I knew that something was amiss. When I heard the jury questions, I knew some person (or persons) was absolutely convinced that Dunn did have a right to shoot Jordan Davis. And why wouldn’t they? You have four White men, four White women, one Asian woman, two Black women and a Hispanic male and each of their perceptions and racial biases to take into consideration. That’s when I took to Twitter with my legal hat on and forecasted my prediction in 140 characters or less: “These latest jury ?s lead me to think verdict>self defense against #JordanDavis and NO self defense against the other teens HOPE I'M WRONG!”
Unfortunately, I was right. If each of those non White jurors put themselves in the shoes of Michael Dunn, what would they have done at that moment? Apparently, at least one juror felt strongly that he or she would have done the exact same thing. Some people mistakenly believe we live in a post-racial society. The fact that we have a Black president is now supposed to be the great equalizer and all of the racial stereotypes, vile hatred and intolerances have disappeared because of a man named Barack Obama—and, thus, the actions of a George Zimmerman or Michael Dunn aren’t racially motivated.
Saturday’s verdict was a reminder, that in 2014, a White man still feels it’s his absolute right to unilaterally demand that some Black kid obey him. Somehow, Dunn felt that he had the right to sit in a gas station parking lot in peace and demand that the unarmed teens obey him and turn down their music. After Jordan Davis back talked him, Dunn said he “wasn’t going to ask for anymore favors,” and told Davis, “You aren’t going to disrespect me like that!” Instead of a whip, Dunn took the safety off of his gun. Instead of lashings, Dunn fired off ten rounds. Jordan Davis lay dead in that car for mouthing off to a White man.
We’ve seen this before. Trayvon Martin was killed over a hoodie and Skittles and his presence in a neighborhood that was not so welcoming to a kid like him; this time, Jordan Davis was killed over loud music. These cases shine a national spotlight on the fact that many people see Black teens as menaces to society and a threat to one’s safety. You can shoot a Black kid because of perceived threat in Florida and Stand Your Ground. Problem is that many people see a Black boy as just that: a threat. They don’t even have to do anything; their presence is enough.
There’s an ABC show entitled “What Would You Do?” where host John Quinones sets up hidden cameras and stages a particular scene to film passerby’s reactions. In one segment, the producers chain a bike to a post in a park, and videotape reactions as two different people, a White teen boy and a Black teen boy dressed identically, try to pry loose the bike. The White kid hacks at the bike for over an hour largely undisturbed and only one person of the many that passed tried to stop him. Literally within seconds of the Black actor trying to pry loose the bike, however, every single passerby jumped in. People frenetically whipped out cell phones to call police or to take photos and nearly every person harassed, harangued and hassled this Black kid about trying to take the bike. Off camera, the Black actor sits looking dejected.
The same prosecution team that tried George Zimmerman, failed yet again by not introducing race as a factor in this murder trial. Dunn, in his own words and jailhouse letters, had deep-seated racial prejudices. He perceived Black boys as thugs, and when they were playing “that rap music” with its “booming bass” that made his “mirrors shake,” he demanded silence. It’s particularly unnerving that jurors couldn’t come an agreement on the lesser included offenses of 2nd degree murder, manslaughter or excusable homicide. They couldn’t convict on any murder charge because someone else could agree with Dunn’s perception of self-defense against a perceived threat.
In the nearly 150 years since slavery ended, not much has changed. It seems in some states you can still lawfully shoot a Black kid, a perceived threat, for backtalk and that’s just what the master could lawfully do on the plantation. Dunn’s conviction on three counts of attempted murder will keep him in jail for up to sixty years, but one can’t help but to feel that he’s somehow being punished for failing to take out the entire car full of menacing, dangerous and unarmed Black teens. The state will retry him for the murder of Jordan Davis, but it’s hard to be optimistic for a conviction again after the sobering reminder that when it comes to spraying a car of kids with bullets and killing one, someone saw justifiable fear.
Lisa Bonner is an Entertainment lawyer with offices in New York. Follow her on Twitter: @lisabonner