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Mistrial declared for murder charge in Fla. shooting

Michael Dunn was brought into the courtroom Saturday afternoon.

Bob Mack/The Florida Times-Union via AP

Michael Dunn was brought into the courtroom Saturday afternoon.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — After four days of deliberation, the jury in the trial of Michael Dunn, a Florida man who shot a teenager to death in a parking lot during a dispute over loud music, said it could not agree on whether Dunn had acted in self-defense or was guilty of murder.

The jurors did find Dunn guilty of three counts of attempted murder for getting out of his car and firing several times at the Durango sport utility vehicle in which Jordan Davis, 17, was killed but three other teenagers were not struck. Dunn continued to fire at the car even as it pulled away. For that crime, Dunn could be sentenced to 20 to 60 years in prison.

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Judge Russell L. Healey declared a mistrial on the count of first-degree murder. The jury also failed to reach agreement on lesser charges that are automatically included in jury instructions. Those were second- and third-degree murder and manslaughter. Prosecutors are free to move ahead with a new trial on the murder charge, if they wish.

The trial was tinged with racial overtones. Dunn is white, and the teenagers were black.

The trial also drew renewed attention to Florida’s self-defense laws that allow people who feel threatened to use lethal force to protect themselves. It began six months after the verdict in another high-profile case that focused on race, in which George Zimmerman was acquitted in the fatal shooting of a black teenager, Trayvon Martin.

The 12 jurors, who had been sequestered since Feb. 6, included four white men, four white women, two black women, one Hispanic man and one Asian-American woman. Some black leaders expressed disappointment that there were no black men on the jury.

The deadlock means that at least one person on the jury had reasonable doubt about the prosecution’s version of events.

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Prosecutors had argued that Dunn did not shoot Davis out of fear for his life, as he testified. He shot him, they said, because he was enraged that when he asked the teenagers to turn down the music booming from his car in a gas station parking lot — he described it to his fiancée as “thug music” — Davis did not do so and then cursed him.

Prosecutors argued that Dunn had enough time to reflect before acting, which is why they accused him of premeditated murder.

Coming on the heels of the failure last July to convict Zimmerman, the verdict was a significant blow to prosecutors. Dunn’s case was so important to state attorney Angela Corey that she participated in the trial. Corey was the special prosecutor in the Zimmerman case.

“The verdict won’t sit well with the black community in Jacksonville,” said Ken Jefferson, a leader in the city’s black community, which makes up 30 percent of the population. “There is a feeling of being able to shoot black people and get away with it, particularly coming off Zimmerman.”

Dunn’s lawyer, Cory Strolla, said prosecutors had overcharged Dunn, reaching for premeditated murder because they were seeking vindication after their loss in the Zimmerman trial. “It happening on the heels of a not-guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman case escalated that political pressure,” he said.

In a statement Saturday issued before the verdict, the parents of Martin said that no matter the outcome, Davis’ parents would never see him again, and they added that the killing is “yet another reminder that in Florida, racial profiling and stereotypes” may serve as the basis for illegitimate fear “and the shooting and killing of young teenagers.”

Dunn, who testified Tuesday, told jurors that Davis had pointed a shotgun at him from the window of the Durango, threatened to kill him and then tried to get out of the car. It was only then, Dunn said, that he reached into his glove box, unholstered his 9 mm pistol, chambered a round and opened fire, shooting 10 times.

“It was Jordan Davis who kept escalating this to the point where I had no choice but to defend myself,” Dunn said on the stand. “It was life or death.”

Davis, a high school senior who had spent the day with three friends at the mall on the day he was killed, Nov. 23, 2012, was hit three times and died in the car. He would have celebrated his 19th birthday Sunday.

Prosecutors argued that Dunn had fabricated his story about the shotgun to bolster his self-defense claim. The police never found a shotgun, and no witnesses reported seeing one. The teenagers testified that none of them had a shotgun in the car — that is why no one shot back at Dunn, the prosecutors said.

The trial, which lasted six days before deliberations began Wednesday, was the latest courtroom test for Florida’s expansive self-defense statutes, including the “stand your ground” law. Under the law, Dunn need only to have been convinced that he saw a shotgun, whether one was present or not.

Since their son’s death, the Davises have worked to try to change Florida’s self-defense laws, which grant wide latitude to people who believed they face a threat.

Prosecutors portrayed Dunn as a man who immediately felt threatened because he viewed the teenagers as “gangsters.” Strolla disputed that notion.

Legal analysts said the defense had a relatively weak case because only Dunn said he had seen a shotgun, and his fiancée’s testimony undermined his credibility. To back his claim, Dunn was forced to testify.

“He testified very straightforward and honest,” Strolla said.

In what prosecutors called a “wow” trial moment, Dunn’s fiancée, Rhonda Rouer, shaking on the witness stand, said that Dunn had not mentioned to her in the night and day they spent together before his arrest that any of the teens had a shotgun. Rouer was inside the gas station when the shooting occurred.

But there were weaknesses in the prosecutors’ case.

Strolla repeatedly told jurors that no shotgun had been found because the police had failed to thoroughly search for it after the shooting. The teenagers, he said, had three minutes to hide the weapon after they pulled out of the gas station to a nearby lot to evade the gunfire.

A detective on the stand acknowledged that the search had been limited. But prosecutors said that was because Dunn never called the police.

Strolla, at a news conference before the verdict, said, “They thought this was just another murder in Jacksonville.”

Strolla also underscored inconsistencies in the testimony of the teenagers who were in the car that night and cast doubt on the witness who said he had heard Dunn say, “You’re not going to talk to me that way,” before reaching for his pistol.

Prosecutors also told the jury little about Davis, who had no criminal record and had no drugs or alcohol in his system when he died.

Throughout the trial, prosecutors asked jurors to use “common sense” when considering Dunn’s behavior after the shooting, which they said did not jibe with the actions of a man who had fired in self-defense.

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