When Michael Dunn pulled in at a petrol station in Jacksonville, Florida, on 23 November 2012, the Dodge Durango SUV containing 17-year-old Jordan Davis and his friends was already on the forecourt.
Dunn, a software developer from out of town, was on the way home from his son’s wedding. His fiancée, Rhonda Rouer, went into the shop to buy wine and crisps, while he stayed in the car with the couple’s puppy.
The four teenagers in the Durango were playing loud hip-hop on the car’s stereo. Dunn considered the music “rap crap” and “thug music”; he became annoyed by its volume and asked the teens to turn it down.
Dunn, who is white, would later claim he was threatened verbally by Davis, who was black, and that he saw what he believed was the barrel of a gun emerging from the SUV. Dunn pulled a handgun from his glove compartment, firing 10 bullets at the Durango. “My intent was to stop the attack, not necessarily end a life,” Dunn testified at his trial, as his lawyers argued that he fired in self-defence. Davis was hit three times and died.
On Saturday, after 30 hours of deliberation, a jury in Jacksonville was unable to reach a verdict on the charge of first-degree murder. Dunn, 47, still faces life behind bars, after being found guilty on four lesser counts, including three of attempted second-degree murder, which carry a combined mandatory minimum sentence of 60 years.
But it was an unsatisfactory conclusion to a trial that has raised troubling memories of another unarmed black teenager’s death. The parents of Trayvon Martin, whose killer George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder last year, said Davis’s death was a reminder that in Florida “racial profiling and stereotypes” could lead to “the shooting and killing of young teenagers”.
Zimmerman shot dead Martin in Sanford, about 125 miles from where Dunn shot Davis. The cases were both prosecuted by the same State’s Attorney’s office. Ken Jefferson of Operation Save Our Sons, a national initiative aimed at empowering young African-American men, told The New York Times: “The verdict won’t sit well with the black community in Jacksonville.” The Trayvon Martin case, he said, had created, “a feeling of being able to shoot black people and get away with it”.
After the shooting, Dunn and Rouer left the petrol station without contacting police. They drove to a motel 40 miles away, where Dunn walked the dog and ate a takeaway pizza. Six hours later, he learned that he had killed Davis and, he testified, became “crazy with grief”. He suffered a stomach upset for several hours and then took a nap.
Rouer later testified that Dunn never mentioned that he thought the teenagers had a weapon of any sort – let alone a shotgun, as Dunn would claim. Police found a basketball and camera tripod in the Durango, but no firearms. Dunn also said that one of the teenagers had stepped from the SUV and he feared a “clear and present danger” before opening fire. Prosecutors insisted that nobody got out of the car.
Instead, they said, Dunn had been angered by what he felt was the teenagers’ disrespect. Dunn testified that one of the teenagers had yelled expletives at him, including the derogatory racial term “cracker”. One witness claimed he heard Dunn respond: “You are not going to talk to me like that.” The prosecution told the jury that Dunn “didn’t shoot into a carful of kids to save his life. He shot into it to save his pride. Jordan Davis didn’t have a weapon, he had a big mouth.”
Following the announcement of a mistrial, State’s Attorney Angela Corey said her office would seek a new trial on the charge of first-degree murder. In spite of the inconclusive verdict, however, Davis’s mother Lucia McBath told reporters that her family was “very happy to have just a little bit of closure”.
Davis would have turned 19 on Sunday. “It’s sad for Mr Dunn that he will live the rest of his life in that sense of torment, and I will pray for him,” McBath said.