Not Again: One Black Attorney's Thoughts on the Michael Dunn Verdict

While Dunn is unlikely to ever experience life again as a free man, neither Martin nor Davis will experience life at all beyond their 17th year of existence simply because someone else decided that they were justified in using their gun to 'defend' themselves.
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So the verdict in the Michael Dunn trial was handed down last night. Now, if you haven't been paying attention, I can't fault you too much if you get this case a little confused with some others you may have heard about recently. This is not the other case in Florida about the Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea; no, it isn't the one with the movie about the guy in San Francisco on the BART, either; nope, it also isn't the one about the thousands of black and brown males in New York who have been harassed by NYPD policing tactics. This is the case that you have likely heard many (rather disrespectfully) reference as the "loud music" trial, where Dunn, a 47-year-old software developer got into an argument with a car full of teens over the teens playing music at a high volume. Eventually, the argument escalated and Dunn ended up firing rounds into the car. As a result of his actions, 17-year-old Jordan Davis is now dead.

We got that straight? Good.

Without over-indulging in legalese, the verdict can be summed up as follows: a mistrial was declared on the top count of first-degree murder. Dunn was convicted for firing a missile at a vehicle (essentially attempted murder). The jury could not agree as to whether Dunn was guilty of murder in the first degree, the intentional and premeditated taking of a human life, but did, unanimously find that the requirements for attempted second degree murder (killing while exhibiting a depraved mindset or indifference to human life), and the weapons charge Dunn faced all had been proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Florida sentencing guidelines dictate that most of Dunn's sentence will be served consecutively, meaning that barring a successful appeal or some other unusual occurrence he will likely die in jail. As for the top count of first-degree murder, the Florida state attorney's office has already declared that it will seek to re-try Dunn on this charge. In the same breath that I can admit it is unfair to question the motives of the prosecutor, my own experience has shown me that high-profile cases ("press" cases as we would call them in Brooklyn) are approached in a different way given the amount of media attention they receive. While I applaud this proactive decision by the state attorney's office, I am admittedly skeptical as to whether it was a preventative measure to slake any immediate reaction of anger from those who have still not completely digested the July 2013 acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Trying to make sense of what the jury decided is an unadvisable move because attempting to understand the machinations of juries frustratingly difficult, even for those who have formal legal training, understand the law and have tired cases in court. Every jury is different and, given the same set of facts, what is important to one set of jurors may differ completely from the next. Undoubtedly, the nation's residual shock in the wake of Zimmerman verdict played a part into how the jury deliberated, even if on a subconscious and unspoken level. Still, without half-hearted and often self-serving-explanations from jurors about the deliberations process in a given case, it is nearly impossible to determine why they decide what they do. If there is any takeaway from the angle of the jurors in any of these recent cases, it is that if blacks are dissatisfied with the verdicts in these trials, then we need to make a stronger and more concerted effort to actively participate in the judicial process by answering notices for jury duty and showing up on time when we are called. The notice sent to your home will not read "You may be selected to sit on the Dunn jury," but your presence could be the difference in ensuring that justice is not again delayed or denied.

On paper, this does not read as a repeat of the Zimmerman trial. Michael Dunn has been convicted and is heading to jail for a very long time. Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin, however, might as well have been the same person. While Dunn is unlikely to ever experience life again as a free man, neither Martin nor Davis will experience life at all beyond their 17th year of existence simply because someone else decided that they were justified in using their gun to "defend" themselves from the "threat" of these young black boys. Many are hesitant to connect Martin and Davis despite the obvious parallels. I get it. If I was faced with near insurmountable evidence that it was open season on young black boys in America, that might make me a bit uncomfortable, too. Denial aside, the message regarding the devaluation of black life in this country is once again reinforced, as loudly as Davis' music may have been that fateful evening and as clearly as it was half a century ago when young Emmitt Till was slain for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.

No, this is not the Zimmerman case, but it evokes many of the same emotions and frustration and despite the jury finding Dunn guilty of attempted murder, so many of us are left with the same empty feeling. Even to a lawyer, the irony here can't be missed: in plain-speak, "to attempt" suggests that an act was unsuccessful and incomplete; only in this case, one of the people Dunn is guilty of having "attempted" to murder is actually dead.

Now our community must once again attempt to pick up the pieces and move forward in dignified fashion after having been reminded that we are not quite fully regarded as human. I cannot argue that it is a less than straightforward endeavor to try and understand the black male psyche. We are often chided for our perspective on life, as if we are needlessly paranoid in seeing ourselves as targets in post-racial America. Experiences like these only underscore the complexity of that perspective.

Whether it is being subject to undue force on behalf of law enforcement for no reason, or countless compounded micro-aggressions against us that even America's first Black President has not been immune to, the fact is that we DO experience life in ways that are vastly different than most and far beyond the comprehension of the sensible. When the loss of one of your own is treated with minimal regard, it will inevitably shift your mindset and your thinking in a way that puts you and keeps you "on edge."

Consider that within the past 12 months we've been reminded, so poignantly, that even by following the law, if you are a black man you can still be a target. Buying candy and a soft-drink while wearing a hoodie and walking around where you live is not a crime -- but if you are young and black, you can be killed for it. Listening to your choice of music loudly is not illegal -- but if you are a young black male, it could mean your life. Consider that for so many of us what is the absurd is too close a mirror to our reality.

That sobering reality is what makes the Dunn verdict, and so many others difficult to swallow -- even in the wake of the conviction on other counts. Another black boy is dead and we are told yet again that it is not a murder. I pray for the comfort of not only Jordan Davis' family, not only Trayvon's family, but the countless others who look just like me and my friends who are repeatedly told that our lives do not matter. They do. And, it is up to each of us to ensure that they will.

We all must.

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