The murder trial of Michael Dunn, which began Monday, puts Florida's 'stand your ground' law front and center again. Mr. Dunn, who is white, is charged with killing a black teen in Jacksonville after jousting over loud music.
Six months after a jury acquitted George Zimmerman of the murder of teenager Trayvon Martin, Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law is back in the news with another high-profile trial set to begin.
Jury selection began Monday in the trial of Michael Dunn, who faces first-degree murder charges for the November 2012 death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. Angela Corey, the Florida state attorney who prosecuted Mr. Zimmerman, is also the prosecutor in the Dunn trial.
Mr. Dunn, a middle-aged white man, allegedly opened fire on a car with four black teenagers in it at a Jacksonville, Fla., gas station. The boys were apparently blasting music, and when Dunn asked them to turn it down, they responded angrily. Dunn has said he felt threatened and thought he saw someone point a gun at him through the back window, so he opened fire. No gun was found in the boys' car, and none of the witnesses to the altercation noticed a gun.
Coming on the heels of the Trayvon Martin trial, the Dunn trial is likely to once again put Florida's controversial stand-your-ground law into the spotlight.
"Even if they do not use it as a defense, it will be in the background," says Lance deHaven-Smith, a Florida State University public policy professor. "It raises a question of whether the stand-your-ground law encourages overreaction to situations that are deemed by some people as threatening."
The law, Professor deHaven-Smith notes, doesn't specify whether a threat must be real for someone to invoke self-defense as a justification for attack, but just whether that threat is perceived.
While deHaven-Smith expects heated debate in the state about the law as the trial takes place, he notes that the Florida legislature is about three-quarters Republican and is unlikely to revise it.
"You’re likely to see a good deal of public sentiment wanting to change this law, but lacking the support in the legislature to change it or even debate it," deHaven-Smith says.
Though the Dunn case has many parallels with the Trayvon Martin case, it hasn't garnered the same degree of attention, in part because, unlike Zimmerman, Dunn was arrested when police found him a day later (after the shooting, he and his fiancée had fled the scene). And, unlike the Trayvon Martin case, several other people witnessed this shooting.
But Dunn has claimed that he was acting in self-defense under the stand-your-ground law, and the trial is likely to hinge on how believable his story is that he feared for his life. In the months since his arrest, Dunn has reached out to several media outlets in a bid to defend himself.
"This case has never been about loud music. This case is about a local thug threatening to kill me because I dared to ask him to turn the music down," Dunn wrote in a letter to First Coast News, a local television station, in the fall. "When Mr. Davis opened his door and said, 'You're DEAD expletive! This expletive is going down NOW,' I was convinced that the loss of my life was imminent, I had no choice but to defend myself, I am NOT a murderer. I am a survivor."
Dunn's lawyer has filed motions in the case asking that the judge in the Jacksonville courtroom not allow references to that letter or similar letters in which Dunn referred to Jordan as a "thug," and has also requested that the judge not allow the prosecution to refer to Jordan as a "victim" during the trial.
Jordan's parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, have been active since their son's death, urging greater gun control and alterations to stand-your-ground laws. They plan to attend the trial.
Ms. McBath is a national spokeswoman for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, and she and Mr. Davis have testified before the Florida legislature and the US Congress.
Davis has said the stand-your-ground law should include a duty to retreat, and to try to find alternatives to using deadly force.
"In your home, you have every right to protect your castle," Davis told Reuters. "In public, we can't all walk around acting like we are in our home, telling people what to do in a public place. We have to share the public space."