JACKSONVILLE, Florida (Reuters) - Jury selection began on Monday in the murder trial of a Florida man who fatally shot an unarmed black teenager during an argument over loud music, a racially-charged case that has revived 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 teenagers that was parked next to him outside a gas station and convenience store in Florida’s northeast city of Jacksonville.
Dunn has said he feared for his life, drawing comparisons to George Zimmerman, the former central Florida neighborhood watch guard who was acquitted of murder last year after saying he shot Trayvon Martin, another black 17-year-old, in self-defense.
Dunn said he had asked the teenagers to turn down their music. From the back passenger seat, Davis refused and the two exchanged words. Dunn says he opened fire because he thought he saw the barrel of a shotgun pointed out the back window at him, though police found no weapon.
Duval county Judge Russell Healey told lawyers in court on Monday the trial will likely last as long as two weeks, including jury selection taking two to three days. Once impaneled, the jury will be sequestered during the course of the trial, he added.
The case has garnered national and international media attention because of its racial overtones and 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.
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 Alexander, 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 Congress. Both have appeared on national television, talking about the case and about their son.
Editing by David Adams and Tom Brown