Jordan Davis and his friends were parked in a strip mall listening to a hip-hop song called Beef by Lil Reese. Trouble pulled up beside them. Michael Dunn said to his girlfriend, “I hate thug music.” Then he asked the black teenagers to turn the music down. First they complied. Then Jordan, defiantly, told his friend to turn it back up.
Dunn claimed that the music was so loud that it rattled his rearview mirror. Yet Dunn claimed also to have heard the youths cursing him. “Are you talking to me?” he asked them. Moments later Dunn shot Jordan dead.
Police say Jordan, like Trayvon Martin, had no gun. The killer’s strategy during his murder trial was to portray himself, a grown, armed man, as the innocent victim and Jordan, a child who was unarmed, as the criminal. Reminiscent of the Trayvon Martin case, this was, in light of the evidence, the wolf putting on the sheep’s clothes. Dunn claimed, “I thought I saw” a shotgun pointing out the window. Then one of the teens – Jordan? – stepped out of the SUV.
But police said that the bullet which killed Jordan likely passed through the car door. Jordan’s body was found in the back seat of the SUV leaning away from Dunn. Experts also showed that Dunn’s car was simply too close to the Durango SUV for Jordan or any of the other teens to have even gotten out.
Dunn claimed once he saw what “I thought” was a shotgun, “quicker than a flash” he had a round in the chamber. But police proved that Dunn would have had to first load the gun. How did he manage to retrieve his gun, load it and aim and fire before the black teen already holding “the shotgun” had time to react?
But, on the murder charge, the jury was hung. At least one juror embraced Dunn’s story. It is a familiar rule that, generally, self-defense is not available to the person who creates the confrontation. But isn’t that what Dunn did? Even if a juror could rationalize this, he or she would also have to disbelieve police experts who said the bullet probably penetrated the door, disbelieve all the kids who testified and disbelieve the police, who said Jordan had no gun.
For me, this is inexplicable on grounds other than race. Race is more than skin color or ancestry. Race is a distorting window. Just as light passing through water is distorted, through this window of race real events are distorted, as well. Psychologist doing studies on implicit bias showed a film to subjects in which a white person attacks a black person with a knife. It is shown for a very brief period of time. Often when observers in the test are asked what happened in the video, the knife changes hands.
Race and credibility are intertwined. We have seen this in police cases where officers who shoot blacks are acquitted on murder charges despite overwhelming evidence. In the case of another victim, Oscar Grant, in a separate case, the jury rejected a murder charge despite the fact that Officer Johannes Mehserle shot him in the back while he was handcuffed. No weapon changed hands in this case. But the roles of victim and criminal were clearly reversed in the mind of the juror or jurors who refused to convict.
The Jordan Davis case, like the Trayvon Martin case, has set back the clock on our civil rights. Historically, no jury would convict a white person for killing a black person. Nor would a jury fail to convict a black person for killing a white person. Often, during the era of segregation, whites killed blacks for disrespecting them. Wasn’t that really what this was?
I‘m reminded of a cartoon in which the tombstone read, “Shot for texting in a movie.” Another read, “I threw popcorn.” Or was this case less about disrespect and more about Michael Dunn’s paranoia? In that case, maybe Jordan’s tombstone might read, “He thought I had a gun.”
Many will say well Dunn was convicted on attempted murder counts, hooray, he will serve many years in jail. But it is not about the years. It is about the message. Jordan Davis’ father said, “Jordan just wanted to grow. He thought he was safe in America.” He was not. The fact that Michael Dunn could shoot an unarmed child and escape a murder conviction may suggest to many would-be white vigilantes that, under our “stand your ground” law, they now have a license to kill black children and black men.
Donald Jones is a professor of law at the University of Miami and the author of Fear of a Hip Hop Planet: America’s New Dilemma. (Praeger, 2013).