I’ve been waiting to write about the mistrial in the Jordan Davis murder trial because I have been hoping to hear something about the jury’s deliberations. The jurors agreed that Michael Dunn was responsible for firing 10 shots at Davis’ car and endangering the three other people who were in the car. They agreed that he was criminally wrong to do so. But they could not agree that beyond any reasonable doubt he was criminally responsible for murdering Davis.
I have so many questions about that. Was there a single holdout on the jury, or an even split? Was there something about Florida’s self-defense laws that proved to be a sticking point? Did the jurors believe Dunn when he said he saw a weapon?
The thing is, all of these questions are technicalities. They’re important technicalities. They’re technicalities that we need to understand so that we can intelligently work to reform self-defense laws, weapons laws, and other parts of the criminal justice system. But they don’t do a damn thing to address the hurt and pain that I have seen on Twitter and commentaries across the web. For millions of people, the fact that Dunn will most likely spend the rest of his life in prison if the guilty verdicts are upheld pales next to the fact that the jury could not deliver the simple, clear statement that Dunn murdered Davis.
That’s the part that hurts me, that has me feeling so lost right now. Because at the moment, I have a lot of sympathy for that jury. Our legal system is not always set up to deliver straightforward statements; sometimes you have to read between the lines. Al Capone went to jail for tax evasion. Plenty of people get busted for obstruction and not for the actual crime they committed. So if there was something that made it hard for the jury to make the specific point about Davis’ death, they were still able to make the point that what Dunn did was horribly wrong and that he needs to pay for his actions. There are people like Martin Longman at Booman Tribune who see that point and accept the verdict as adequate, albeit imperfect, justice.
My initial reaction to the verdict was along similar lines. Based on the evidence that I have read, I am pretty sure that Dunn is both racist and reckless, and that those two traits combined with a gun to result in a horrible death that is Dunn’s fault. I could also see how that same racism and recklessness could lead him to panic, and that in that panic he could suddenly believe that he was the one at risk. I wasn’t surprised that under Florida’s laws, some jurors might find that panic enough to raise reasonable doubt. I thought that this was another example of how our gun laws and self-defense laws can lead to tragic results, and felt relief that the verdict found another route to punish Dunn.
But then there are so many people like Tonyaa Weathersbee who see that verdict as a “hollow victory,” and ask what would have happened if Davis had been alone in his car. The mistrial speaks so loudly to them that no appeal to the end result can take away the pain. The deadlock calls out so loudly that no discussion of technicalities can make sense of the senseless. I did not have that immediate emotional reaction to the verdict, because I did not hear the same thing that they heard. But just because I did not hear what they heard does not mean that it wasn’t there. Indeed, the fact that so many people heard it makes me sure it was there, even if the jury didn’t mean for it to be there.
I’m grateful that Twitter and the educator communities that I belong to helped raise those voices up so that it was easier for me to hear them. I’ve been asking myself why I don’t see the verdict through the same lens that they do. It might be privilege. It might be my philosophical background leading me to view the verdict as an epistemological exercise. It might be my own experiences as a juror, when I have been torn between what I believed happen and what I believed the law required. It’s probably a combination of these and half a dozen other factors.
But beyond any of that, we live in a society that has a legacy of injustice. That legacy infects us in so many ways, frequently with tragic results. We need to confront that injustice every day. I do not know if we will ever get to a point where there are no Michael Dunns with their fear and anger towards others. I do not know if we will ever get to a point where the American justice system is not stacked against a significant part of its population. But we have to try or we will never stop inflicting these wounds on ourselves and each other.