In the backdraft of the Trayvon Martin debacle, Florida – and its bungling special prosecutor, Angela Corey – will be under fierce pressure to produce a conviction in the state’s other major stand-your-ground case. Last Thanksgiving, as amply detailed in these pages, Jordan Davis, the black son of two Delta Airline lifers, was gunned down before dozens of panicked onlookers at a crowded Jacksonville retail plaza on Black Friday, the busiest shopping day of the year. His killer, a mountainous, hate-spewing loner named Michael David Dunn, calmly opened fire, at point-blank range, on the red SUV in which Jordan and three friends, all well-raised, luminous teens, were sitting and listening to Chief Keef. That, and that alone, was the impetus for Dunn to roll down his window and pick a fight. By the time Dunn stopped shooting and sped away down 95, Jordan, the prince of Samuel Wolfson High School, was bleeding out in the back seat of the Dodge Durango. His death, at 17, punched a hole in the community, and shattered the lives of his parents and the boys in that car.
On its face, at least, the case against Dunn is more compelling than the one the state brought against George Zimmerman. There are, besides the statements of multiple eyewitnesses, Dunn’s incriminating remarks to his girlfriend, Rhonda Rouer, who was in the car beside him and has agreed to testify for the state. Also, no weapon was recovered from the boys’ car, though Dunn claimed days later that he saw the barrel of a shotgun leveled at him from their window. But because this is Florida, the birthplace of stand-your-ground and other gross corruptions of the Second Amendment, niggling details – like the facts, for instance – may not matter in the end. As the law is written, the case will come down to what Dunn believed he saw, not whether he had the basis to believe it. “In Florida courts, you don’t need to be right; you just need to believe that you are,” says John Phillips, the prominent Jacksonville attorney who’s representing the family of Jordan Davis in its civil suit against Dunn. And though Dunn hasn’t made a motion for a pre-trial hearing on a stand-your-ground defense, the law will weigh heavily on the hearts of jurors, as it did at the Zimmerman trial.
Jury selection will begin the last week of September; the trial itself should take about a fortnight. There’s been a lot of posturing by Dunn’s attorney, an anonymous traffic fixer named Corey Strolla, who forced the first judge, the well-respected Suzanne Bass, to recuse herself in May. A second judge stepped down just this past week, ducking the potential career suicide of an acquittal. The third, a county, not a Circuit Court judge, will take a big step up in class for this trial, an unusual and worrisome development. “If the state blows this one because of a ruling he makes, there’s going to be hell to pay, and not just here,” says Phillips.
Indeed, the trial will be a firebox of big emotions, and the attention brought to bear on it extreme. If Dunn, a 300-pound giant of a man with a loaded 9mm and an extra clip in his glovebox, can persuade a Jacksonville jury that his life was at risk from four middle-class boys who’d stopped to buy gum, then Ms. Corey and her statutes may be put to the torch by a populace that’s finally had enough. In George Zimmerman, the state of Florida has created something obscene: a legally bulletproof coward with a license to kill. Wherever he goes now, semi-auto in holster, he will have every permission to read the minds of black kids and detect retaliation in their thoughts. The Twitterverse is crackling with threats against his life; marchers carried signs in dozens of cities saying, This ain’t over or The ‘hood will handle it. It won’t matter whether any of those aggrieved young men make a move in Zimmerman’s direction. All he’ll have to say is that he thought they did, or that they meant to, before he opened fire.
In a state full to bursting with cocked-and-loaded natives – there are 15,000 carry permits issued per month, and more than a million dispensed since Florida passed a law saying that anyone with no record of violent crime could bear multiple weapons in public – we have weaponized the bitterness of working-class whites, given them license, a playbook and enormous stopping power to use at their discretion. But most have no discretion, as they’ve proven at the polls, where they vote en masse for men who ship jobs offshore and give the banks carte blanche to take their homes. What they have, instead, is a well-thumbed sense of grievance, which has cost two blameless teens their lives. There will be other horrors, bet the house on it. The gun laws in this country all but beg them.