The trial of the killer of yet another black teenager in Florida has again awakened a national conversation about race and the criminal justice system.
Following a verbal altercation over loud music on Nov. 23, 2012, Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old white man, shot into a car occupied by four unarmed black teenagers. Jordan Davis, 17, died as a result. Last week, a jury found Dunn guilty of three counts of attempted second-degree murder – for the three teens who survived – but deadlocked on the first-degree murder charge for Davis’ killing.
The decision has baffled many and once again put Florida, where white Hispanic George Zimmerman was found not guilty of the shooting death of black teen Trayvon Martin just seven months ago, under intense scrutiny.
“Dunn shot those boys over music,” declared S. Wayne Patterson, a local attorney and president of the Winston-Salem brach of the NAACP. “More and more black men are getting killed in the state of Florida and more and more white men are walking away.”
Like Zimmerman, Dunn claimed that he acted in self-defense. Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground law allows for residents to use deadly force if they fear their lives are in danger. But neither Trayvon Martin, Davis nor any of the other teens in the car were armed. That fact should have been reason enough to convince a jury that Dunn killed Davis in cold blood, Patterson said.
“It’s just a travesty; you can get killed for playing loud music and it’s alright, according to most people,” he remarked. “I don’t know what’s going on in 2014. It’s murder – it’s the basic concept of murder – and for him not to be convicted of murder but manslaughter is ludicrous.”
The outcome was the source of disappointment, but not surprise, said Rev. Willard Bass, founder of the Institute for Dismantling Racism and president of the Ministers Conference of Winston-Salem and Vicinity.
“I already had some idea of how it was going to go,” he admitted. “I just didn’t feel like the Florida justice system is equitable.”
Wake Forest University alumna Nicole Little, a community activist who organized local efforts to bring attention to the Trayvon Martin case, said she was deeply saddened by Davis’ senseless death. Although she is dissatisfied with the jury’s failure to find Dunn guilty of Davis’ murder, the fact that Dunn, who could face 60 years or more in prison for the lesser crimes, was convicted at all is a step in the right direction, Little said.
“A hung jury implies that there was some struggle,” she noted. “…In my eyes, coming back from Trayvon Martin, it’s progress.”
But Professor Larry Little, a political science professor at Winston-Salem State University and veteran political activist (who is no relation to Nicole Little), said the fact that Dunn was convicted is not good enough.
“If you stab someone in the back and you move the knife out halfway, I’m not sure that’s progress,” he said. “… The man who is guilty in this killing won’t go free, but he won’t bear the full brunt of the law in this case.”
While some are quick to point the finger at Florida and the justice system that many have deemed to be unjust there, Professor Little said he does not believe Florida is an aberration.
“I think that case could’ve happened the same way right here in Winston-Salem, right here in North Carolina, and it’s sad,” he said. “It shows we’ve still got work to do.”
Nicole Little, whose Trayvon Martin rally that drew hundreds of local attendees last year, said the initial outrage over Martin’s death fizzled quickly. She is hopeful that social justice advocates can find a way to translate the fervor surrounding the Michael Dunn verdict into action and real change, in Florida as well as here in North Carolina.
“Unfortunately, Mr. Davis and Mr. Martin … are setting up a platform for justice to be delivered on another level,” she said. “I think it’s opening up a conversation for the Florida justice system to be revamped and looked at differently.”
The Davis case presents an opportunity for dialogue about race and racism in America, and what can be done to address the inequities that exist within the criminal justice system that should not be ignored, Bass said. If community members are serious about opening the lines of communication following this latest miscarriage of justice, the Institute for Dismantling Racism would be happy to host a dialogue on race and race relations in the local community, he added.
“The way this case was handled is a perfect opportunity for our community and for our state. We should take advantage of this opportunity, even though it was a terrible outcome,” he stated. “…This gives us an opportunity to really show that as a state and as a nation, we are committed to having equal justice for all, and equal protection for all.”
For more information about IDR, contact Bass at firstname.lastname@example.org.