Friday, February 7, 2014

Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law on Trial, Again

On Monday, February 3, 2014, Angela Corey began jury selection as she prepares to prosecute a second, high profile murder case in Florida.  Corey is prosecuting Michael David Dunn for the murder and attempted murder of seventeen year old Jordan Davis and his friends.  Davis was killed in the parking lot of a Jacksonville, FL gas station on November 23, 2013.  Corey is the prosecutor who was hand selected to investigate the Trayvon Martin case in March 2013.

Corey is again prosecuting a murder case where the defense is Florida’s very controversial “stand your ground” law.  The case made headlines last fall when the news broke that Davis was killed over loud music.  Police say that Dunn and his girlfriend stopped at the gas station where Davis and friends were in an SUV listening to loud music.  While Dunn’s girlfriend was in the store, Dunn approached the teen’s SUV and told them to turn the music down.  Dunn and Davis began to argue, and Dunn fired eight or nine shots in to the SUV.  Dunn’s lawyer, Cory Strolla, has stated that Dunn acted “as any responsible firearms owner would have.  Dunn himself sent a letter to a local news station, claiming that this case has never been about loud music, but about Dunn’s life being threatened by a local thug.  Dunn claims he saw the barrel of a shot gun pointing at him from the backseat window, but no gun was ever recovered.  The defense believes that a gun was not recovered because the Jacksonville sheriffs never looked for one.  The defense will likely argue that the teens had time to flee the scene and ditch any weapon they may have had, even though none of the 911 calls reported a second weapon on the scene.

Dunn was arrested the day after Davis’ death, and after his arrest, many people began to make comparisons to the Trayvon Martin case.  Davis, like Martin, was an African American teenager who was shot while unarmed.  Both were just seventeen years old.  Dunn and Zimmerman both had valid licenses to carry weapons.  Both stories involve racial undertones and affirmative self-defense theories.  Both shooters were of a different race than their young victims; Dunn is Caucasian.  At a time when racial tensions are already heightened, especially in Florida, what can lawyers on both sides of the courtroom do to try and ensure a fair trial?

Strolla is attempting to limit the impact of race on the trial by filing pretrial motions to keep out statements Dunn made in jailhouse letters, where he referred to Davis, and some inmates at the jail as “thugs.”  Strolla has also filed a motion asking the presiding judge to bar the prosecution from referring to Davis as the victim.  The question remains whether these motions will help ensure that Dunn receives a fair trial.  Prosecutors very commonly refer to subjects of criminal activity as victims in court proceedings, even when the defense is arguing self-defense.  What makes Davis different, what prevents him from being a victim?  Maybe Dunn did think that Davis was a thug, which is why he felt so threatened in the situation, but buzz words like “thug” can spark a lot of emotion from juries. 

Although lawyers are prohibited from using evidence that is more prejudicial than it is informative, framing of the issues is still a huge part of any case.  Lawyers need to understand how to frame the case, and how to create a theme that can sum up the case.  In order to help the jury understand the framework, lawyers can use buzz words or visuals to catch the jury’s attention.  Creating a blow-up image of evidence to show the jury and refer to during arguments is a great way to keep the jury focused, and to have more of an impact than words alone.

The fact remains, however, that Dunn shot Davis.  That is not in dispute.  The dispute is over the why.  Dunn’s trial will necessarily hinge on why Dunn shot Davis: on whether Dunn felt threatened, and if there was a reason, or if Dunn simply thought Davis was a thug.  “Stand your ground” allows deadly force when a person “reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself.  Although Strolla is providing a zealous defense by attempting to keep inflammatory, prejudicial facts out of the trial, these statements are central issues in determining, as a matter of fact, why Dunn fired so many shots into an SUV of teenagers.  If Dunn felt threatened because he believed the car was full of “thugs,” then the jury needs to know that information so that they can determine whether it was reasonable for Dunn to use deadly force.

The rules of evidence exist to try and ensure that trials are fair.  In a case like this, where the mindset of the accused is so central to the issues in the case, it may be difficult to keep the question of race out of the courtroom.  Dunn himself felt the need to tell people that he thought Davis was a thug, by sending a letter to a news station.  In his letter, Dunn claims this case is not about loud music, but about a “local thug” who was threatening him.  As a defense attorney, making pretrial motions and being proactive is the best way to provide a defense to your client.  However, it is also necessary to understand the cultural climate you are working in; for Strolla, this means being aware of the public response to the George Zimmerman trial.  Zimmerman’s “stand your ground” defense worked, because the defense focused on a lack of evidence, and also on the threat perceived by Zimmerman.  Without a second gun, Strolla will need to focus on the threat perceived by Dunn.  That threat is what the jury will need to consider when determining if Dunn acted reasonably.

The same is true for prosecutors.  Corey is a seasoned prosecutor and has already tried a similar high profile "stand your ground" case.  Despite losing the Zimmerman trial, there is still a lot to learn from that case.  If Dunn thought he was threatened only because he thought Davis was a thug, Corey needs to show that Dunn’s belief was unreasonable.  The lack of a second weapon could help her case, or could create reasonable doubt.  As the trial starts, Corey should study her past case, and focus on how to engage the jury in the story, engage them in the evidence, and meet her burden of proof.

Amber Wetzel
Senior Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

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