Rough Justice for Jordan Davis and His Killer, Michael Dunn

Michael Dunn during jury deliberations at his trial in Jacksonville, Florida, on Feb. 13, 2014 Photograph by Bob Mack/The Florida Times-Union

The jury in the “loud music case” returned a classic split-the-difference verdict on Saturday night. The racially mixed panel in Jacksonville, Fla., found white shooter Michael Dunn guilty of three counts of second-degree attempted murder, but not of first-degree premeditated murder, in the killing of black teenager Jordan Davis. Dunn, 47, now could face more than 60 years in prison—in effect, a life sentence.

In a situation with no hope of a happy outcome, no resolution that would undo the pointless destruction of a young life, no verdict that might resolve centuries of racial acrimony, this conclusion seems adequate. Sometimes rough justice is enough.

Dunn killed Davis, 17, in November 2012 after an argument at a gas station escalated in a deadly fashion. Dunn demanded that Davis and three friends turn down their music. The teenagers defied him. Dunn claimed Davis brandished a shotgun. Dunn reached into his glove box for a pistol and fired 10 rounds, killing Davis. Police did not recover a shotgun, or any other weapon, from the boys’ car. Moreover, in the wake of the shootout, Dunn never mentioned the threat of a shotgun to his girlfriend. He also failed to call police.

While the jury was deliberating, I laid out an argument for why this case ought to cause Florida and other states to reconsider their stand-your-ground laws, which encourage gun owners like Dunn to shoot first and ask questions later. The racial subtext of the Davis killing only makes that need for rethinking stand-your-ground laws more urgent. Ample evidence—some of it, again, coming from Dunn’s girlfriend—indicated the shooter viewed Davis and his friends with an extra dose of hostility only because they were black.

That still leaves the question of what to think about the verdict in Dunn’s trial. After jurors didn’t reach consensus on the first-degree murder charge, resulting in a mistrial on that count, the local prosecutor, Angela Corey, immediately said she would retry Dunn on that charge. Judith Browne Dianis, co-director of the civil rights group the Advancement Project, said via e-mail: “The fact that jurors could not convict Dunn of first-degree murder—when his killing of Davis was not a matter of debate—is a travesty that must be rectified in a second trial.”

The Advancement Project, a “next-generation multiracial civil rights organization,” was founded in 1999 by experienced lawyers. They should know better. The jurors could have convicted Dunn of first-degree murder. But, for better or worse, one or more members of the panel had a reasonable doubt about whether Dunn’s wild and deplorable shooting spree was “premeditated,” as prosecutors alleged. Thus the compromise verdict, one which still allows for severe punishment.

It would be far wiser for civil rights groups to take a different stand, one that consigns Dunn to a long prison term but doesn’t prolong public focus on the particular nature of this one man’s malevolence. He’s not important. Why provide a fresh forum for his defense lawyers to suggest he’s some kind of martyr?

What’s important is moving ahead to a renewed social and political debate about whether laws that encourage use of deadly force in the face of any perceived physical threat are a good idea or a bad idea. What’s important is a discussion about whether, despite progress in civil rights legislation and improved racial relations, we still have a long way to go before rambunctious black teenagers, doing nothing more than listening to loud—and possibly even obnoxious—music provoke paranoia and lethal rage. Onward.

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