January 6, 2016 -- This documentary film follows a long Florida murder trial in which the “Stand Your Ground” law was used in the legal defense of a white man who fired 10 shots at a car with four unarmed black teenagers after a dispute about loud music.
I vaguely remembered hearing about this case when it made the national news, but I did not know, or at least remember, going into the film, how it finally turned out in court. The final verdict came in nearly two years after the incident happened. The entire trial was televised, so that makes up a substantial portion of the film, combined with interviews and other archival news video.
The shooting incident happened on Black Friday, November 23, 2012 at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. Four black teen boys were headed back from the mall to play video games, Tevin Thompson, Leland Brunson, Jordan Davis and the driver Tommie Stornes. Stornes stopped at a gas station for cigarettes. A car pulled up next to his and Rhonda Rouer got out of that car to go into the gas station to buy some wine. She and Michael Dunn had just come from his son's wedding.
Music was blasting from the Stornes' car. Dunn was annoyed, and asked the boys to turn the music down. They did, but then Davis turned the music back up. An argument ensued between Dunn and Davis, who pulled out a gun and started shooting, killing Davis.
It is pretty obvious from the evidence that Dunn is guilty of murder, but the movie filters the evidence in such a way that it looks like Dunn has a better defense than he actually has. Dunn claimed that he feared for his life and that Davis pulled a gun on him. No gun was found, but Dunn's lawyer claimed the gun could have been dumped, or hidden before police got there. It is also revealed at the trial that police didn't search the area for the gun until four days after the incident. There is a good reason for that delay, but it isn't given in the film.
After reading articles about this case in Rolling Stone and Newsweek it is clear to me that the case against Dunn is much stronger than what is depicted in the film. However, the film is not just about the legal case, it is about the effect the killing of Davis had on his family. Jordan Davis, the only child of Lucia McBath and Ron Davis. Lucia has a medical condition that made successful pregnancies almost impossible. After three failed pregnancies, she almost died giving birth to Jordan, a miracle baby. Jordan's murder has inflicted almost unbearable pain on his family.
Dunn's defense in this case, that he was afraid for his life, is a strange defense only available in states, like Florida, which have “stand your ground” laws. It means, in certain circumstances, that an imaginary threat can be used as a defense. In this case, it appears there wasn't even an imaginary threat, more like a threat fabricated after the fact.
I found the verdict surprising, and another surprising thing was the testimony of Rhonda Rouer. I expected her to lie about the gun that Dunn claims to have seen. She was still in the gas station store when the shooting started. She was asked repeatedly at trial if Dunn said anything to her about the gun he saw during the hours after the shooting. Dunn said in his testimony that he told her about the gun after the shooting. Rouer denied this. She said Dunn said nothing about being threatened with a gun. That blew me away. Lucia McBath also marveled at Rouer's truthfulness on the stand.
This incident happened not long after the widely publicized killing of Trayvon Martin, so the politics around this case were hot. There were protesters outside the courthouse. One of the reasons it took so long to resolve this case was that there were actually two murder trials due to a hung jury at the first trial. It shows how “stand your ground” laws muddy the legal waters.
The “stand your ground” legal experiment has resulted in an increase in killings, and this murder defense works a lot better if the victim is black. A study (not mentioned in the film) was published last year in the journal Social Science and Medicine examining over 200 killings where the “stand your ground” law was used as a defense in Florida. The study showed “a suspect is twice as likely to be convicted of a crime if the victim is white, compared to when the victim is not white.”
The research team, led by Melody Goodman of Washington University in St. Louis said in the study, “These results are similar to pre-civil rights era statistics, with strict enforcement for crimes when the victim was white and less-rigorous enforcement with the victim is nonwhite.” So basically “Stand Your Ground” laws provide a sneaky way of counteracting civil rights laws, legalizing white privilege and devaluing black lives.
This is just another reason the “Black Lives Matter” demonstrations have spread around the country. This film makes it look like the system worked, and that justice, though delayed a long time, was finally served, but the reality for most black families in this situation is not that rosy. For every black parent who gets justice, there are two more who not only mourn their child's death, but who feel that the lives of their loved ones have no value in the eyes of the law.
This is an effective film, but as a documentary, it leaves out facts which troubled me. This film rates a B.
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