Saturday, February 15, 2014

Don’t Blame the Jury... 3rd Refrain: The Michael Dunn Case

A mistrial was declared in the murder trial of Michael Dunn, who was charged with 1st degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis… the so-called “loud music case.” And a fair share of Curmie’s leftie friends—which is to say a goodly percentage of the sum total—are frothing at the mouth about it.

True, the jury didn’t exonerate Dunn or even acquit him: they just couldn’t agree on one count of a five-count prosecution. The other charges, carrying something in the vicinity of 75 years of imprisonment (three of the charges carry minimum 20-year sentences which must run consecutively) for a 47-year-old defendant, all resulted in convictions. So Dunn will die in prison; since my friends are the kind of “progressives” who don’t believe in the death penalty, there’s no other option for them, anyway. And there’s going to be a re-trial on the remaining charge. But the Screeching Lefties (good band name, no?) demand the right to be Outraged because… Justice… and Race… and… and… and, you know, Stuff.

So now it’s time for Curmie, that model of moderation and decorum, to talk them down from the rhetorical cliffs from which they hurl their indignation. We start with my ongoing declaration that in the absence of hard evidence of actual corruption, I will never disparage a jury for a finding of Not Guilty. I said that about the Casey Anthony case; I repeated it in reference to the George Zimmerman verdict. Juries actually see and hear the evidence itself, not some reporter’s version of it, and they see the body language and hear the tone of voice of the witnesses. They are in a better position than I, or you, Gentle Reader, or than the yammering pundit class, to determine and weigh the actual facts of the case.

Secondly, there is the foundational principle of Anglo-American jurisprudence: reasonable doubt. Suggesting that guilt must be determined “beyond reasonable doubt” is a high standard, but an appropriate one. Before we toss someone, anyone, into prison for the rest of his life, it would seem to be a good idea to be pretty damned certain of both his guilt and his mental state at the time of the events in question. “I’m pretty sure he did, and I kinda think he meant to” may be reason to ostracize a defendant, to refuse to patronize his business, to make sure he never baby-sits for your kids. It is insufficient to convict him of a felony.

Thirdly, the single charge which did not result in a conviction is 1st degree murder. According to Florida statute, that requires that the crime be “perpetrated from a premeditated design to effect the death of the person killed or any human being.” In other words, to get a conviction, the prosecution much prove beyond reasonable doubt that the accused a). is the actual perpetrator, b). planned the attack, and c). intended to kill someone (the victim, or conceivably someone else)—that is, not to punish, to silence, to intimidate, to render unthreatening, or to injure. No, to convict someone of 1st degree murder, you have to prove the gunman (in this case) actively, cold-bloodedly, and specifically sought the death of a fellow human being.

“I’m no lawyer, but…” is something of a refrain on this blog. Please insert it liberally into the arguments here. But it sure does seem to me that getting a conviction on 1st degree murder was always a stretch. Dunn got pissed off at Davis’s loud music, and he responded in what could be called a highly inappropriate manner.

But was his act premeditated? And was death his goal? If your answer to either of these questions is anything less than “yes, beyond reasonable doubt,” Gentle Reader, you’d be obligated to vote to acquit. And I confess that based on what I know of the case, I personally couldn’t muster more than a “maybe” and a “probably.”

On the other hand, would I regard Dunn’s actions as an “act imminently dangerous to another and evincing a depraved mind regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the death of any particular individual”? Why yes; yes, I would (based on my understanding of the case at present). And that, Gentle Reader, is why Michael Dunn should have been prosecuted for murder in the 2nd degree. If I understand the situation correctly—insert Curmie isn’t a lawyer caveat here—there were in fact lesser included charges: 2nd degree murder, manslaughter, etc., but there was a single crime, so convicting Dunn of, say, manslaughter, would prevent any future prosecution on the more serious charge because of double jeopardy. So it may be that the self-defense and “stand your ground” claims were in fact rejected by the jury, that they simply couldn’t agree which of the charges would be most appropriate as regards the death of Jordan Davis, and didn’t want to reduce the charge to something they could all agree on, given the fact that one or more of them believed him guilty of the most serious offense.

Prosecutors got three convictions on attempted murder in the 2nd degree for the shootings of the other people in the car, but they got greedy. Unless there’s something about this case that I don’t understand—and that is entirely possible, I hasten to note—I’d be one of those jurors who are now being accused of everything from racism to imbecility by people who really do know better, but who choose not to prove it.

Curmie does believe in personal responsibility, so the folks who are hurling insults at the jurors do so at risk to their own credibility. But, just as a 2nd degree murder charge rests on the idea that the defendant did something inherently risky but didn’t seem to care, so is an over-reaching prosecution fraught with peril… and the perpetrators are responsible for the mess they create.

And so we’re back at not blaming the jury. From what I can tell, they did their job admirably, up to and including rendering a split decision on the merits of the lead count of the indictment.

1 comment:

John Burger said...

Curmie! That was a well-reasoned, articulate analysis of the case as I understood it (though I am a lawyer, I don't practice criminal law so I am not a criminal law expert). Thank you for taking a step back and summing it up concisely.

It seems that all the shouting voices would just like to dispense with 250 years of jurisprudence, skip over the inconveniences of an indictment, arraignment, discovery, pretrial motions, jury selection, trial stuff, and simply hop over the deliberations, omit the niceties of a verdict and/or sentencing and simply impose the maximum sentence allowed by law and execute him in the town square at High Noon. That would save the whole system a bunch of money and headaches because, well, we all KNOW he did it!