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Florida's 'stand your ground' law under fire after trial verdict

Michael Dunn sits in the courtroom during closing arguments at his murder trial in the shooting death of unarmed teen Jordan Davis, in Jacks
Michael Dunn sits in the courtroom during closing arguments at his murder trial in the shooting death of unarmed teen Jordan Davis, in Jacks

By Bill Cotterell and David Adams

TALLAHASSEE/MIAMI, Florida (Reuters) - The split decision by a sharply divided jury in Florida's latest high-profile self-defense trial on Saturday is prompting renewed calls for a review of the state's controversial "stand your ground" law, while legal analysts try to make sense of the jury's decision.

Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old software engineer, was convicted on Saturday on three counts of attempted murder for opening fire on a car of black teenagers during an argument over loud rap music in November 2012. But the jury could not reach a verdict on a murder charge for killing one of the passengers.

Civil rights groups and a handful of state legislators are urging a legal review of Florida's self-defense statute, saying it has created a license to kill for gun owners who hate or fear young black men.

"We can't ignore the 800-pound gorilla in the room. At the end of the day, if the race roles were reversed in both instances, there would be a full-on repeal," said state Senator Dwight Bullard, a Miami Democrat.

But their chances may be slim: Gun rights activists, backed by a Republican-controlled legislature, say things are fine the way they are.

State Representative Dennis Baxley, a Republican who sponsored the law in 2005, said critics misunderstand the law's intent, saying the statute has been used in hundreds of unheralded cases by black defendants citing their self-defense rights.

"This narrative that says white people are tracking black people down and murdering them is just not true," he said.

Civil rights leaders say they understand the law perfectly well.

"It's not about white or black, it's about right and wrong," said the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., president of the Tallahassee chapter of the National Action Network, a civil rights group headed by the Rev. Al Sharpton. "It's a license for folks to shoot first and ask questions later."

The Baptist minister served as vice-chairman of a special task force appointed by Florida Governor Rick Scott, a Republican, to study the law after the 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old Miami boy who was killed near Orlando during a fight with a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman.

After a series of statewide hearings, the panel recommended no major changes in the law, but Holmes said members called for a study to determine whether there are race disparities in its application. No such study has been done, he said.

The state capitol was occupied for 31 days by scores of youth activists from all over the state last year after Zimmerman's acquittal. The protesters called themselves "Dream Defenders" and demanded a hearing on repeal of the stand-your-ground law.

But a state House of Representatives criminal justice panel voted 11-2 in December against changing the law. More than 20 states have adopted stand-your-ground laws since Florida enacted its law.

Florida, referred to by some gun control advocates as the Gunshine State, has 1.2 million active concealed weapons permits, according to state records, more than any other state.

The stand-your-ground law allows people who believe they are in imminent fear 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," Florida State Attorney Angela Corey reminded reporters in Jacksonville after Saturday's verdict.

Corey's office prosecuted the Zimmerman and Dunn cases, and faces another tough challenge in the upcoming retrial of Marissa Alexander, a black Jacksonville woman originally sentenced to 20 years in prison for firing what she said was a warning shot at her abusive husband.

Baxley said the Dunn and Zimmerman trials were "anomalies" because both men initiated the confrontations that led to shootings. The law was intended to remove the legal requirement that a person first try to retreat and seek safety, rather than stand and fight.

Martin's case was easier for the jury to reach an acquittal on because Martin and Zimmerman had wrestled on the ground before the shooting, leaving the neighborhood watchman with cuts and bruises to his head and face.

'THE 'DON'T MISS' LAW'

The hung jury in the Dunn case indicates that jurors were more confused than those in the Zimmerman case. Dunn and Davis never came into physical contact, and it turned out that Dunn was never in real danger.

During the trial, Dunn said he fired 10 rounds in self-defense at the SUV carrying the four teens in gas station parking lot, killing Jordan Davis, 17.

Dunn said he thought he saw the barrel of a gun in Davis' car window, but no shots were fired at him and police never found a gun.

One of the 12 jurors has since said they deadlocked 9-3 to convict Dunn on the murder charge.

Dunn faces 60 years in jail, though prosecutors say they will retry him on the first-degree murder count for Davis' death.

The verdict has become fodder for legal analysis on media talk shows, often seeking to ridicule the law.

"The 'stand your ground' law, it really should be called the 'don't miss' law, because when you miss, you go to jail, but if you hit the young black teenager, you go home free," said Benjamin Crump, a Tallahassee lawyer who represents Trayvon Martin's family.

"No members of the legislature intended to legalize murder when they passed the stand-your-ground law, but that's what has happened," he added.

But gun rights activists aren't losing much sleep over the Dunn verdict.

Marion Hammer, president of Unified Sportsmen of Florida and two-term former president of the National Rifle Association, said she has heard nothing about anyone taking another run at the stand-your-ground law.

"I don't have a crystal ball, but we haven't heard anything," she said. "We'll be vigilant."

(Editing by David Adams and Douglas Royalty)

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