The circumstances of the killing are not in question. Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old white man, pulled up outside a convenience store in Florida, objected to the music blaring from a neighbouring vehicle and, after a brief argument, pulled a handgun out of his glove box and fired ten rounds into the car.
Three of the young black men in 4WD were lucky enough not to be hurt at all. The fourth, 17-year-old Jordan Davis, sat in the back seat dead or dying from three gunshot wounds. The young men had tried to escape, but Dunn, a gun collector, kept firing into their car as they fled.
The boys drove to hospital where Davis was pronounced dead. Dunn went to his hotel room with his girlfriend and ordered a pizza.
On Saturday night in Florida an exhausted jury told the judge that after 30 hours of deliberations over four days they had come to a verdict on some of the charges Dunn faced, but were deadlocked on the main one. They could not agree that he was guilty of first-degree murder. On that count alone a mistrial was declared.
Kruzshander Scott, president of the Jacksonville section of the National Council of Negro Women, was among the crowd waiting outside the court for the verdict, the Associated Press reported. “I am scared to death because unless these laws are checked or changed for the benefit of all, it’s not going to change. We are going to repeat this same story over and over,” she said.
She is right. Floridians might be struck by the brutality of Jordan’s death but they cannot claim to be surprised that a jury could not convict his killer of murder.
This is the state where the stand your ground law written by the National Rifle Association protected George Zimmerman from conviction for shooting 17-year-old Trayvon Martin dead as he walked home with a packet of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea.
This is the state where Curtis Reeves shot 43-year-old Chad Oulson dead in a cinema after they argued about Oulson’s texting. A newly released autopsy report shows a bullet grazed Oulson’s wrist before it hit him in the throat. The injury to the wrist is thought to be a defensive wound, as though in the instant before he was shot Oulson tried paw the bullet out of the air.
In each of these cases the killers used the stand your ground law as a defence, either explicitly or implicitly.
Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer, followed Martin in his car because he thought the boy was suspicious. After he shot him dead he told police they had become involved in a fight and he feared for his life. Police took him at his word and he was not even charged with a crime for six weeks.
His lawyers did not raise the stand your ground law in court, but they did not need to, the judge explained in instructions to the jury.
After shooting Oulson in the cinema Reeves told police he had “reason to believe [Oulson] was going to kick my ass”. He remains in jail awaiting trial.
Dunn told police he was intimidated by the “thug music” playing in the car Jordan was sitting in. During his trial he claimed Davis raised a shotgun and pointed it at him. No other witnesses saw a shotgun and none was found. The prosecution asked why, if the boys had a shotgun, they did not fire it.
Florida’s stand your ground law extends the so-called castle doctrine – which allows people to use lethal force to protect themselves in their homes – into the public domain. Where once people who feared for their safety had to first seek to retreat before using lethal force, they may now legally shoot first.
Zimmerman’s acquittal and Dunn’s mistrial are not glitches in stand your ground law, but the law’s very intent.
Since Florida introduced the law in 2005 it has spread via the conservative campaign organisation the American Legislative Exchange Council to nearly two dozen states. It is impossible to know whether these scared and angry men shot strangers because they were aware of the law and felt protected by it, but research by Texas A&M University shows that in states with stand your ground homicides have increased by up to 9 per cent.
The NRA believes the greatest danger to Americans are what it calls “gun free zones”, places where it is illegal to carry guns. The group is working hard and successfully to eradicate these zones, places like schools, churches, bars and restaurants. But the organisation seems to believe that there is no point in arming citizens if citizens don’t feel comfortable using their weapons.
Jordan’s father Ron Davis has no doubt the law failed his boy.
“[Jordan] was a good kid. It wasn’t allowed to be said in the court room, but we’ll say it. He was a good kid,” he said after the mistrial. “There are a lot of good kids out there … They should have a voice. They shouldn’t have to live in fear … that if they get shot, it’s just collateral damage.
“We do not accept a law that would allow collateral damage to our family members … We expect the law to be behind us, and protect us. That’s what I wanted the law to do — to protect Jordan as we protected Jordan.”