Witness to the Prosecution
Thoughts from a week in the courtroom watching the Michael Dunn trial
Michael Dunn hates rap music. Hates it. "Thug music," he called it. And when he pulled into that Gate convenience store that fateful day in November 2012, it was blaring loudly, obnoxiously. Of that there is no doubt. And it pissed him off.
Dunn had squeezed his Jetta into the space next to that red Dodge Durango, the source of the noise pollution. The Durango's passenger-side tires were on the line separating the parking spaces. So close. The SUV's stereo had been customized; the bass thumped so hard it rattled the Durango's doors and rearview mirror — bone-vibrating bass.
"Rap crap," he said to his fiancée, Rhonda Rouer, as she got out of the car to buy some wine inside the store.
"I know," she responded with a sigh.
The choice of song didn't help: "Beef," by Lil Reese. Maybe Dunn caught some of the lyrics. The song is — no denying this — violent and expletive-laden, loaded with words like "bitch," "kill" and "nigga," lines like "Lil Durk know where he stay/he a be dead by the next day."
He later told detectives, "I don't know if they're singing or what but they're saying, ‘Kill him.' " He heard someone say, "Kill that bitch." And he was very scared. "That's when I put my window down again and I said, ‘Excuse me, are you talking about me?' "
Of course they weren't, no more than someone singing along to Johnny Cash wants to actually take a shot of cocaine and shoot his woman down. But Michael Dunn was very afraid, and he hates rap music.
This, he told police, is when he saw one of the four boys in the SUV, 17-year-old Jordan Davis, brandish a shotgun. Then, Dunn said, Davis opened the car door and told him, "You're dead, bitch."
With a bone-chilling pride in his own efficiency, Dunn described to the police what happened next: "That's when I reached in my glovebox, unholstered my gun and quicker than a flash had a round chambered in it and I shot."
Then he fired another nine rounds at the Durango, three of which struck and killed Jordan Davis; even as the red SUV sped away, he kept firing. That shotgun was never found; Dunn never mentioned it to his fiancée as they left the scene (without calling the cops to report the shooting).
The witnesses never saw it, either. One later testified that Dunn told Davis, "You aren't going to talk to me that way," before opening fire.
And yet Dunn's trial concluded Saturday with a mixed verdict; the jury convicted him on three lesser charges, and Dunn will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars, but they deadlocked on the murder count. At least one juror, maybe more, thought Michael Dunn was right to fear for his life.
Maybe Jordan Davis was singing along to that Lil Reese song. It's doubtful his parents would approve, doubtful he dared use a single cuss word in either his mother's or his father's house. They're not the kind of folks to stand for that sort of thing.
Jordan Davis wasn't perfect, but neither was he a thug. He was middle class, a teenager. He'd been homeschooled by his mother when he was younger. He and his friends had been mall-hopping that day; he'd paid a visit to his girlfriend at her job at Urban Outfitters.
He was a beautiful kid coming of age in a world where Stand Your Ground has blurred the lines between self-defense and murder, especially when the shooter is white and the dead person is black.
Jordan Davis didn't deserve to die.
He died because he stepped outside the boundaries of where Michael Dunn believes young black men should be — not unlike Emmett Till, who was flirting with a white cashier in Mississippi in 1955, or Trayvon Martin, who was deemed suspicious in his father's Sanford neighborhood in 2012. They violated the South's social code and paid the price.
So did Jordan Davis, who refused to turn down his music and told an older white man to fuck off. In so doing, he threatened Michael Dunn's sense of his place in the world, his privilege, his authority.
The Other had arrived and was declaring himself with an offensive boom.
Maybe America — at least here in the remnants of the Confederacy — isn't ready for black teenage boys who are full of themselves, rebellious, smart-ass, brash, taking their place in the world. Maybe we, like Michael Dunn, are scared to death.
A lot has changed in the last half-century, but this hasn't. Young black men are still perceived as things to be feared, as almost inherently dangerous. Dunn had a waking nightmare that a young black man was going to off him right then and there, just outside the front door of a shiny, busy, well-lit, tastefully landscaped convenience store with at least two clerks manning the registers, with customers coming and going, at the intersection of two major thoroughfares through the Southside's suburban sprawl.
If the Dunn trial taught us anything, it's that young black Americans are not yet entirely free.
State Attorney Angela Corey said before the trial — for which I was in the courtroom gavel-to-gavel — that this wasn't going to be about race. Lucia McBath, Davis' mother, said she didn't believe it was a hate crime. Suggesting otherwise, she said, would dishonor her son because he wasn't about division. He wanted everyone to get along.
She's wrong. Corey's wrong, too. This was all about race. And it was a hate crime. Michael Dunn doesn't just hate rap music. He hates black kids who listen to rap music. Dunn was so blinded by this hate that he actually believed Davis and his friends would call up other gang members and swarm the city looking for him. That's the way gangs work, don't you know?
Since 2005, Florida's self-defense law, called Stand Your Ground, no longer requires someone to retreat from a life-threatening situation. If you believe that your life is in danger, you can meet deadly force with deadly force, shoot to kill. You kill someone and then a jury decides if that belief was reasonable.
Make no mistake about it — Stand Your Ground was in play here, and likely factored into the mistrial. Dunn didn't try to get his charges dismissed by making a formal Stand Your Ground petition to the judge, but his lawyers argued to the jury that the law applied, and the judge's instructions to the jury included the admonition that, thanks to Stand Your Ground, Dunn had no duty to retreat if he felt his life was in danger.
Outside the courthouse, R.L. Gundy, Florida director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a Jacksonville minister, told me, "The pen of the law has taken away the morality of the law with Stand Your Ground. The Legislature in the state of Florida is on trial over Trayvon Marin and Jordan Davis. They have legislated murder."
This isn't an uncommon sentiment in the black community. Demonstrating on the courthouse steps on the day of the verdict, Jacksonville mother Latonya Bradley held a sign written on a piece of typing paper that read, "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."
She's afraid for her sons, especially the oldest ones, who are 20 and 16. What mother would want to tell her child the warning she gives hers? "You really mean nothing when you go out. Be careful, mind your business and do your best to stay out of harm's way." o