For Every Michael Dunn Guilty Verdict, a George Zimmerman Still Goes Free
“I think it’s a vindication for justice.” Angela Corey said that. This is the same Angela Corey whose office failed, not so long ago, to secure a guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. But there was the Florida state attorney on Wednesday afternoon, having secured a guilty verdict – delivered by a mostly white-male jury in about five hours – that condemned Michael Dunn to a minimum of 25 years to life in prison for the first-degree murder of 17-year-old Jordan Davis.
This is a season in which we are witnessing the senseless murder of black bodies by white hands, hands that occupy a privileged white space. This is a season in which the victimhood of white killers – their implied innocence – is accepted or taken as given. This verdict in Florida on Wednesday afternoon tips towards a promise that justice is truly blind. But justice in America is fickle.
Two years ago, Dunn shot a car full of teenagers at a gas station in Jacksonville, then fled the scene, claiming he imminently feared for his life because the teenagers were playing loud music. I hadn’t been following this year’s retrial case so closely, because in the months since the original jury returned a hung verdict, I had seen tragedies unfold in communities across America. I had seen the same kind of tragedy – unarmed young African Americans dying at the hands of the police and their guns – and the same uneven justice.
We witnessed the failure of justice in the acquittal of the killer George Zimmerman, who has since had enough interactions with the law and his guns that justice seems evaded. But then we witnessed a Michigan jury returned a guilty verdict to the killer Theodore Wafer and sentenced him to a minimum of 17 years for the murder of teenager Renisha McBride.
We witnessed a Milwaukee jury sentence the killer John Henry Spooner to spend the rest of his days in prison for the “horrific, egregious” murder of 13-year-old Darius Simmons. But then we witnessed an Ohio grand jury somehow decide there wasn’t enough evidence to indict the killer police officers who shot John Crawford III for minding his own business in the pet-food aisle of a suburban Walmart.
And of course we witnessed the aftermath of the shooting of Michael Brown by the killer cop Darren Wilson – and so many of us asked for vindication, demanded it. But now we are witnessing a possible leak from the Missouri grand jury – that “[t]here isn’t enough at this point to warrant an arrest” – and maybe next we will witness having to start all over again, even for justice in Ferguson.
It is impossible, in this season of senseless killing, not to grow weary. And so I steeled myself for another outcome that would once again deny justice to another African American family for the wrongful death of their child.
The Florida state attorney’s office came under national scrutiny along with Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which studies have shown results in marked inequality – in favor of white men, in denying justice for their unarmed black victims. But in the second Dunn trial, the state met its burden, as the evidence matched up with the narrative to reveal a glaring truth: Jordan Davis was just a kid, who snapped at an old guy – an old guy who so clung to the old order that his inherent whiteness and privilege had engendered dominion over Davis’s person, that he assumed such complete racial innocence that he shot up a car full of black kids because, to the old white order, black kids are men and, so, are threatening.
During the re-trial, Dunn’s attorney told jurors that his client had been“confronted by an angry young man that was yelling at him, cursing at him, and who ... believed he brandished a firearm”. It leveled the responsibility on Davis for his own death. While race is noticeably absent in that language, the implication was meant to invoke an embedded racial prejudice: that a black kid hurling curses over the sound of loud music must mean the kid is a gun-brandishing thug.
The “stand your ground” defense withers when your victims are alive, and doubly fails when they serve as witnesses to a crime, living to tell the tale. The dead do not talk.
And so the verdict was “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.” Jordan Davis’s father said that. He said that “[h]opefully, this is a start where we don’t have to look at the makeup of a jury anymore”.
I want to believe Davis – that justice means a jury of white men can hold white men culpable of the crime of shooting unarmed black youth for frivolous disagreements. I want to believe we have a legal system that can fairly challenge the kind of racial bias that leads to deadly consequences.
Because African Americans believe in this system. We believe in a system of real justice so fervently that we agitate for everyone to recognize its promise. Eric Holder, in his waning days as US attorney general, has committed federal resources to investigate the shooting deaths of Michael Brown and John Crawford, and going a bit further in Missouri, to investigate the police practices in St Louis County, and maybe even further than that. Because he needs to.
As Davis’s mother said on Wednesday, “Jordan has received his justice.” But she said that justice, too, has been served for “Trayvon and for all the nameless faces and children and people that will never have a voice”.
I’m glad to see justice delivered to the family of Jordan Davis, to see that the perpetrator of his murder has finally been held accountable for his actions. Yet I wonder what justice will look like for the families of our Michael Browns and John Crawfords. I’m waiting for justice to be a system that is fairly applied to those we entrust to enforce our laws, to equally protect all.
A vindication for justice. What is that?