JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - A Florida jury convicted a white, middle-aged man on Saturday of three counts of attempted murder for opening fire on a car of black teenagers during an argument over loud rap music, but could not reach a verdict on a murder charge for the killing of a 17-year-old in the car.
Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old software engineer, fired 10 rounds at a vehicle carrying four teens in a Jacksonville gas station parking lot in November 2012, killing black teen Jordan Davis.
The jury deadlocked on the most serious charge of first-degree murder against Dunn, forcing Judge Russell Healey to declare a mistrial on that count.
The failure to reach a verdict on the first-degree murder charge is a blow for the prosecution and the Davis family. But Dunn still faces at least 60 years in jail for the attempted murder convictions against the three other teens, legal analysts said.
Prosecutors told a press conference after the verdicts were read that they plan to retry Dunn, who has been in jail since his arrest in 2012, on the first-degree murder charge.
The jury also found Dunn guilty on a fifth count of firing into an occupied vehicle.
The trial has drawn international attention because of racial overtones and Dunn’s claims of self-defense.
The case has drawn comparisons to the self-defense trial of George Zimmerman, the former central Florida neighborhood watch volunteer who was acquitted last year of murder in the shooting of an unarmed, black 17-year-old, Trayvon Martin.
Attorney Cory Strolla said Dunn and his family are devastated by the four guilty verdicts. “He never saw it coming, not one bit,” Strolla said.
Dunn, who had no prior convictions, testified earlier this week that he began shooting in a state of panic after he thought he saw the barrel of a gun in the back window as Davis started to get out of the car.
Prosecutors said Davis, who had no arrest record, had used foul language when confronting Dunn after the argument broke out, but was unarmed and never posed a physical threat.
“The self-defense argument made some headway. The jury, or some of them, believed he saw a muzzle of a gun,” said David Weinstein, a former state prosecutor, now in private practice in Miami.
Mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines in Florida for crimes committed with a gun mean that Dunn faces 20 years for each of the three counts of his conviction.
“It has been a long, long road and we’re so very happy to have just a little bit of closure,” Davis’ teary mother, Lucy McBath, told reporters. “It’s sad for Mr. Dunn that he will live the rest of his life in that sense of torment. I will pray for him,” she said.
“But we are so grateful for the charges that have been brought against him, we are so grateful for the truth, we are so grateful that the jurors were able to understand the common sense of it all,” she added.
“(Teenagers) shouldn’t have to worry about walking around, worrying about if someone has a problem with them,” said Davis’ father, Ron Davis.
“We don’t accept a law that would allow our children to be regarded as collateral damage.”
Earlier on Saturday, the judge said questions posed by the 12-member jury indicated they thought Dunn was initially justified in firing the first seven bullets to defend himself from Davis, but then went too far by continuing to pull the trigger as the fleeing teens drove off.
The judge speculated that jurors felt Dunn overstepped the limits of self-defense law by shooting a final volley of three bullets after he got out of his car, when the teens no longer represented any kind of threat.
“They may say justifiable use of deadly force was in play to (a) certain point and then it went away. There was no justification for those last set of shots,” the judge said.
Critics of U.S. gun laws were quick to react on Saturday.
“The jury did their very best but they were hamstrung by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law,” said Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a non-profit group created in the wake of the Sandy Hook school shooting in December 2012. “The law basically legalizes armed vigilantes,” Watts said.
Florida’s Stand Your Ground law allows persons who believe they are in imminent danger of serious bodily injury to use deadly force to defend themselves, even if, despite their subjective belief, no real threat exists.
“A person in that position doesn’t have to see something (an actual weapon), but there has to be reasonable fear. That’s the way Florida law reads,” said State Attorney Angela Corey after the verdict.
Since Florida passed its law in 2005, more than half the states have passed similar laws with the backing of the gun lobby.
“The mistrial further sends a chilling effect to parents in the 23 states that have the Stand Your Ground law or laws similar,” said civil rights leader Reverend Al Sharpton, president of the National Action Network. “It requires the Civil Rights community to head into Florida, which is now ground zero for a national fight to change that law,” he added.
The sequestered jury of eight whites, two blacks, one Asian and one Hispanic, began deliberating on Wednesday afternoon after a week of testimony and spent more than 30 hours trying to reach a verdict.
Writing by David Adams and Colleen Jenkins. Additional reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles. Editing by Marguerita Choy, Bernard Orr, G Crosse and Lisa Shumaker