JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - A Florida murder trial, stemming from an argument over loud music at a gas station that ended in the shooting death of an unarmed black teenager, opens on Monday, reviving a debate over the state’s gun control and self-defense laws.
Michael Dunn, 47, faces first-degree murder charges in the death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis on November 23, 2012.
The white, middle-aged software engineer opened fire on a car with four black teenage boys inside that was parked next to him in the parking lot of a Jacksonville gas station convenience store in northeast Florida.
Dunn has said he feared for his life, drawing comparisons to the trial of George Zimmerman, the former central Florida neighborhood watchman who was acquitted last year of murder after saying he shot a 17-year-old unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in self-defense.
Dunn said he had asked the teenagers to turn down the volume of their music. From the back passenger seat, Davis refused and the two exchanged words. Dunn says he opened fire because he saw the barrel of a gun pointed out the back window at him, though police found no weapon.
The case has garnered national and international media attention because of the racial overtones and the self-defense claims. Like Zimmerman, Dunn said he feared a black teenager who was unarmed.
Media credentials have been issued to 178 journalists and 24 media outlets seeking to cover the case in Duval county court.
If found guilty, Dunn faces life in prison. Prosecutors say they won’t seek the death penalty.
Dunn’s attorney, Cory Strolla, has filed motions asking the judge not to allow references in the trial to comments Dunn made in jailhouse letters or phone calls where he referred to Davis and to some inmates as “thugs”, and made other “alleged racial comments,” according to court documents.
In a letter that Dunn sent to a local television reporter, he described Davis as a thug. “This case has never been about loud music,” Dunn wrote to news anchor Heather Crawford in October. “This case is about a local thug threatening to kill me because I dared to ask him to turn the music down.”
Strolla also asked that the judge bar the prosecution from referring to Davis as a “victim.”
The media attention will also thrust back into the spotlight Jacksonville’s state attorney Angela Corey, the special prosecutor who was chosen by Florida Governor Rick Scott to handle the Zimmerman case.
She is also the prosecutor in the case of Marissa Anderson, a Jacksonville woman sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she said was a warning shot at her abusive husband.
Jordan’s parents, Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, said they plan to be in the courtroom throughout the trial.
“I need to experience what happened to my son that day,” Ron Davis told Reuters. “As a parent you want to know, ‘What happened to my son? Why did you do this to my son?'”
Since their son’s death, Davis and McBath have become advocates for gun control and for changing Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows people in fear of serious injury to use deadly force to defend themselves rather than retreat.
They have testified before the Florida state legislature and the United States Congress. Both have appeared on national television, talking about the case and about their son.
After the trial, Davis said he will continue to work to have the state Stand Your Ground law revised to include a duty to retreat. If someone is threatened in public, Davis said, the law should require that he or she try to defuse the situation rather than use deadly force.
That requirement might have changed the outcome for his son, he said. “In your home, you have every right to protect your castle,” Davis said. “In public, we can’t all walk around acting like we are in our home, telling people what to do in a public place. We have to share the public space.”
Reporting By David Adams; Editing by Ken Wills