Earlier this month a Florida task force empaneled by Gov. Rick Scott in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing determined that the state’s controversial Stand Your Ground laws, which give wide discretion in the use of deadly force, should remain largely intact.
But last week’s killing of Jordan Russell Davis, an unarmed teenager allegedly gunned down by a white gun collector in Jacksonville who said he feared the teen was a gang member, has unleashed fresh anger and renewed scrutiny of the law.
“It’s a shame that just two weeks after a Florida task force decided it didn’t need to do anything substantive to change Shoot First laws, we have another sad example of how conflicts escalate and a young life is lost senselessly,” Ginny Simmons told MSNBC.com this afternoon. Simmons is the director of Second Chance on Shoot First, a coalition of elected officials and grassroots organizations that has been critical of stand your ground laws.
Police say Davis, 17, a high-school senior whose teachers described him as “bright” and whose family said he recently began working an afterschool job at McDonald’s, was shot and killed on Friday by Michael Dunn, 45, after an argument over loud music.
Davis is black. Dunn is white. And the racial overtones in the case–an armed white man killing an unarmed black teenager amid questionable claims of self-defense–has drawn comparison to the Martin case, which sparked a national movement calling for Martin’s killer’s arrest and a closer look at the Stand Your Ground laws.
Bishop Rudolph McKissick Jr., of Bethel Baptist Institutional Church in Jacksonville said the black community has reacted with “sadness and anger.”
“Sadness that a young life is taken away, anger at the larger issue: the continued stereotyping of our young African-American men.”
Dunn’s lawyer said that Dunn encountered Davis and three other teens at a Jacksonville gas station, where an argument broke out over the teens’ music. Then, the lawyer claims, Dunn saw the barrel of a shotgun poke from the window of the SUV the teens were sitting in, accompanied by threats and expletives.
Dunn pulled out a pistol. He fired eight shots, police say, two of which struck Davis, who was sitting in the backseat. None of the other teens in the car were injured, but Davis was pronounced dead soon after the shooting.
According to reports, Dunn and his girlfriend then stayed the night at a local hotel, before fleeing some 175 miles south to Dunn’s home in Satellite Beach where he was later arrested and charged with murder and attempted murder. The police said no weapons were found in the teens’ vehicle.
Dunn has pleaded not guilty and is being held without bond. “When all the evidence has been flushed out, I believe that it will be extremely clear that Mr. Dunn acted as any responsible firearm-owner would have under the same circumstances,” Dunn’s lawyer, Robin Lemonidis, said in an interview with CNN.
In recent years Davis had moved from Georgia, where his mother lives, to be with his father in Jacksonville. At a prayer vigil held for Davis this week, Ron Davis, the teen’s father, called his son’s killer “a coward,” according to a local news report.
“I don’t know what went on in that car and I don’t know what the kids or what he said to Jordan,” Lucia McBath, the teen’s mother, told First Coast News, an NBC affiliate in Jacksonville. “It doesn’t matter. You shot him over some music? And he was in the car and there’s no logical reason. There’s nothing logical you can say that would make me believe that you were threatened.”
“We don’t know where he was or what kind of dark place he was in at that moment but something snapped in that man,” she said, referring to Dunn. “Something snapped in him, so we are not looking at it as a hate crime because that’s not going to honor Jordan.”
The Davis case echoed the killing of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Miami teen who was shot and killed by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in a gated community in Sanford in February. Zimmerman told police he shot Martin in self-defense, and the police declined to arrest him, citing his rights under the state’s Stand Your Ground Law.
Zimmerman was arrested 44 days later and charged with second-degree murder after a national outcry.
Two weeks ago, the 19-member Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection delivered its long awaited report to Gov. Scott on how, if at all, the Stand Your Ground Law should be amended. For six months the panel traveled the state hearing public testimony from advocates, activist, lawyers and prosecutors. What the panel recommended was what many critics of the law (and of the panel) expected: No marked change to the law.
Derek E. Bruce, an Orlando attorney and member of the task force, said the law itself is not the problem, but that more statewide research is needed on the way the law is applied.
“The concept of being able to stand your ground is a sound one and should be embraced by the law in the state of Florida,” Bruce told MSNBC.com. “That said, we noted some recommendations on how to ensure its uniform application and to make sure the language around it is concise and as targeted as it could possibly be.” Bruce said one of the recommendations is that the State Legislature fund a study to look at where stand your ground defenses have been asserted to see if there “is any correlation or disparate sort of impact given the race of the defendant or a victim or so forth.”
The spotlight attracted by high-profile cases like Davis’s can give the appearance of bias in any particular law, said Bruce.
“Look at our justice system. While there may be a lot of media attention in any one specific case, obviously our job as policymakers is to make sure the system itself is not biased or discriminatory,” he said. “The concept of having the stand your ground law is something that is of value in our legal system, and what we need to do–if we are going to have it as part of our legal system–we need to make sure it is being applied fairly across the board. Obviously the task force was empaneled following the high-profile Trayvon Martin case… and this past weekend another situation in Jacksonville…We can’t let the situations that get a lot of media attention color our judgment about what our system is as a whole.”
Stand Your Ground legislation sailed through the state legislature in 2005 with bipartisan majorities, crafted as a way to bolster existing self-defense laws after a series of major hurricanes raised fears of looters.
But in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case, federal officials had pledged to look more closely at the laws. And the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is investigating what role race might play in the law’s enforcement in Florida and in the nearly two dozen states across the nation with similar laws. “We need to make sure claims of justifiable homicide are not being granted or denied because of the color of someone’s skin,” Michael Yaki, a member of the Commission on Civil Rights, told USA Today this summer.
Allie Braswell, the president of the Central Florida Urban League, said Jordan Davis’ killing is “further evidence of why the law needs to be struck and go back to pre-2005 Castle Doctrine law” that allowed for lethal force under most circumstances when someone entered someone’s home. “I applaud the police for making the arrest [of Dunn] because at least that’s a step in the right direction,” said Braswell, who earlier this year testified during one of the stand your ground task force meetings. But “the problem with the law as it stands, it really is giving people the thought that I am now judge and jury, I’m making the decision that I can shoot and kill.”
He added: “We put a lot of responsibility in untrained hands where emotions get involved and people end up on the other end of a weapon, shot and killed.”
Critics say the law is ambiguously written, which has led to its being misapplied. “You have prostitutes shooting their johns and availing themselves to this law,” State Sen. Chris Smith said during a public meeting in May. “You have gang members having shootouts and availing themselves of this law. You have people chasing someone a block down the street stabbing someone to death and availing themselves of this law. I think those points need to be clarified.” Critics also cite an instance where the defendant was not protected by the law: the case of Marissa Alexander. The Jacksonville mother of three, who is African-American, fired a single warning shot at her abusive husband. It missed him. She was convicted of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and sentenced to the mandatory 20 years in prison. The court disallowed the stand your ground defense in her case.
The law will likely remain controversial as long as it allows the lines to blur between genuine self-defense and reckless use of deadly force. And in situations complicated by stereotypes, racial tensions and bias, the stakes over what counts as justifiable homicide–and not murder–become extraordinarily high.