WHEN THE news came on Wednesday, it was like a thunderclap announcing rain in the desert. Michael Dunn, the man who killed Jordan R. Davis, a black Georgia teenager who was shot to death in Jacksonville, Fla., in November 2012 for the crime of playing music too loud, was found guilty of first-degree murder. A life sentence awaits.
These dry, juiceless facts only barely touch on the volatile cross-currents of race and culture that wound through Dunn’s trial. But the outcome of the trial revealed more than itself; it was a frankly unexpected vindication of the idea of a fair trial made real, in a state with a history of weighting the scales of justice on the basis of race.
The jury deliberated for little more than five hours before finding Dunn, a white Floridian, guilty of firing 10 shots into Davis’ Dodge Durango SUV outside a Jacksonville convenience store, killing Davis, then fleeing the scene with his fiancée. This trial followed the one in February, when Dunn was convicted of three counts of attempted second-degree murder. That trial aroused the rage of African Americans for the monstrous human arithmetic announced in the verdict. Dunn was found guilty on three counts of attempted murder (one for each of Davis’ three passengers) and guilty on the charge of firing into an occupied vehicle.
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The February jury failed to agree on whether Dunn’s killshot — the one that took Davis’ life at the age of 17 — was first degree murder, second degree murder or manslaughter. Thus deadlocked, the judge declared a mistrial on the one count that mattered.
There was no conviction in February for the most serious matter in this case. The verdict confirmed the idea that, in practical terms, Jordan Davis did not exist.
The jury’s relatively brief deliberation in yesterday’s trial made clear a determination not to make the same mistake twice.
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BUT CALL IT Ferguson fatigue: Some news reports in the mainstream media went to great pains to play down the trial’s racial component, describing it in the context of “Florida man convicted of teen’s murder,” a descriptive generality as thematically dishonest as it was factually incomplete. The racial dimensions of the case were there from the start; anyone who read Dunn’s venomous jailhouse letters knew that already. Attempts to scrub the case’s racial overtones bump up against an exhaustion with the spate of race-related police shootings and encounters we’ve been party to all year.
African Americans don’t have the luxury of such willful amnesia. Instead, we’re subject to another malady, a kind of fatalism about how such trials often turn out. It’s a sad leitmotif of black American life vis-à-vis law enforcement: Expect the worst, and you won’t be disappointed.
Some in Jacksonville were expecting the results, but various tweets and comments appending several online news stories about the latest Dunn trial took on a tone of pleasant shock. “Finally, justice for a young black man.” “This is shocking.” “I’m surprised.” “About time.” At the end of the day, that may be the most shocking thing about the verdict: That we’ve become so accustomed to the predictable outcome of the exoneration of such racial violence on the flimsiest of pretexts, it surprises us when the script gets flipped and real justice is done.
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USA Today that each of the three attempted-murder counts carries a 20-year minimum mandatory sentence. That’s 60 years right there. Jackelyn Barnard, spokeswoman for the State Attorney's Office, told USA Today that the sentences must run consecutively.
“You are looking basically at life in prison,” Dunn defense attorney Cory Strolla told CNN, in February, when asked to speculate on his client’s time behind bars. “At 47 years old, that's a life sentence regardless of count one.”
Since a first-degree murder conviction in Florida means life without parole, Dunn’s earlier life sentence on the lesser charges gets even worse, if that’s possible. The sentencing hearing, now set for Oct. 17, is already not much more than a formality.
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IF YOU can imagine a bright side to such a trial, it was there not just in the verdict, but also in the jury that delivered it. Seven white men, three white women, one black man and one black woman sealed Dunn’s fate on Wednesday. It was a rare but welcome victory over our reflexive color-based cynicism, our collective tendency to handicap the outcome of a racially-tinged trial on the basis of who sits in the jury box.
Ron Davis, Jordan’s father, understands this. “I wanted Jacksonville to be a shining example. That you could have a jury made up of mostly white people — white men — and be an example to the rest of the world to stop the discriminatory practices,” he said after the trial.
It would be fittingly anodyne if Davis’ message resonates in other courtrooms, at other trials, along with the bittersweet expression of Lucia McBath, the most eloquent family spokeswoman, a mother deprived of a son.
“Words cannot express our joy, but also our great sorrow,” McBath said after the verdict. “We know that Jordan has received justice and his life and legacy will live on for others. But at the same time, we’re very saddened by the life that Michael Dunn will continue to live. We are saddened for his family, his friends and the community that will continue to suffer by his actions.”
“But we are very grateful that justice has been served — justice not only for Jordan, but justice for Trayvon and justice for all the nameless and faceless children and people that will never have a voice.
"Justice can be served, and it’s not based on the color of your skin.”
Image credits: Jordan Davis: The family of Jordan Davis. Dunn: via Talking Points Memo. Lucia McBath and Ron Davis: Bob Mack (pool) via USA Today.