This week, Florida prosecutors will try once again to convince a jury that Michael Dunn committed first-degree murder when he shot and killed unarmed teenager Jordan Davis at a gas station in Jacksonville.
Dunn racially-charged first trial pitted the white computer programmer against the four African-American teenagers, including Davis, who faced each other at a gas station. Dunn charged that Davis threatened him after he asked the teens to turn the music down in their SUV. He told jurors he believed Davis had a gun and that his life was in danger when he repeatedly shot into their vehicle as it drove off.
The survivors said they were unarmed and never threatened Dunn. Jurors in the first trial in February convicted Dunn on three counts of attempted second-degree murder for shooting into the vehicle, but deadlocked on the first-degree murder charge for Davis’ death, which brings us to this week. A judge ruled earlier that Dunn won’t sentence until this new trial is over.
While some believed race was a central factor in the case, Dunn perceived sense of control and respect were likely stronger factors. Now, race may have been one of the reasons Dunn felt a loss of control and respect, but looking at the evidence, testimony and some of Dunn’s own words, he was a person who clearly had the perception that the teens did not surrender control or gave him respect and he used the barrel of a gun to regain both.
Dunn already faces significant prison time for his convictions but it was the hung jury on the murder charge that stuck with the public. It was reported that a small group of jurors felt that Dunn reasonably could have feared for his life in the incident even though witnesses saw him as the aggressor. The fear of young African-American males in this country is powerful, even when all the facts and testimony find that fear completely unreasonable. Such fear is rooted in inherent racism.
“Racism is a cultural force as much as it is a series of beliefs, and as such, it bears on our subconscious as much as it does our actions,” wrote Jamelle Bouie for the Daily Beast last year. “For Americans, race has a strong pull on our sense of fear and our perceptions of aggression, a fact that has more to do with the legacy of slavery and our long history of racial demonization than it does any particular set of crime statistics. … White Americans are more afraid of black men than any other group in the country.”
Absence of any real fear, Dunn was angered when the four teenagers bucked what he believed was his authority to turn down their music, despite being in a public place whether no such authority existed.
Dunn’s claim of a weapon was imaginary. Instead, he used the threat of Davis having a weapon to use force to exert his authority over the incident. By Dunn’s attorney’s own words in the first trial, his client “did not wait to become a victim” and fired on the teenagers.
Dunn did not act out of fear, but anger because while Davis mouthed off to him, he never left the vehicle. Firing the gun was Dunn’s only means to exact the respect he wanted out of Davis since the teen never confronted him physically. If Dunn actually feared the youth, he would have contacted the authorities and sought help in identifying them. He did neither.
Why did Dunn feel like he should have this control and respect? Maybe it was because he was older. Maybe it was because of his perceived higher social status. And yes, it could have been mostly or partly racial. But make no mistake, control and respect was what Dunn wanted from the teens and when he couldn’t get that verbally, he reached for a weapon. Any real fear had nothing to do with it.
We don’t know how a new jury will react to testimony where Dunn, but if the evidence in the second trial is similar to the first, it will be difficult for new jurors to ignore Dunn’s power grab against the teens.
Clyde Hughes is an award-winning freelance journalist in Lafayette, Indiana. Dr. Rahn Bailey, PhD is chair of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Meharry Medical College, immediate past president of the National Medical Association and author of the book “A Doctor’s Prescription for Health Care Reform.”