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Lessons from State of FL vs. Michael David Dunn

Editor’s note: Florida Network Affiliated Attorney Steve Harris aptly summed up the Florida case in which a man shot into a car of teenagers when he said, “The best description of what I think/feel on the Dunn incident/trial: profound sadness for all involved.” Knowing that he had closely followed the case, we asked him to highlight lessons learned from Michael David Dunn’s trial.

Harris is a member of The Florida Bar. His practice includes representing Federal law enforcement personnel in duty related matters, including use of force. He also assists other attorneys in officer involved and civilian defensive force cases, and provides pro bono assistance to law enforcement agencies and public information personnel on agency policies and Florida use of force law. Our readers will recognize him as a frequent contributor to the Network eJournal’s Attorney of the Month column. He has written on officer involved shootings (OIS) and investigations of civilian defensive shootings in magazines including in Guns and Weapons For Law Enforcement and American COP and is a guest lecturer for the Massad Ayoob Group.

Readers are cautioned that this commentary is for general information only, and is not intended, nor to be relied upon, as legal advice applicable to any actual use of force situation.

by Steven M. Harris, Esq.

Trial recently concluded in this well-publicized case in Jacksonville, FL. A partial verdict was rendered. The defendant, Michael David Dunn, was charged (by indictment) with one count of first degree murder, three counts of attempted first degree murder, and one count of shooting into an occupied vehicle (a second degree felony). The 12-member jury was instructed on lesser included charges on the murder counts. Dunn testified (not expected by some observers) and asserted justification (self defense). His defense was unsupported by logic or any testimony or physical evidence. He asserted those he shot at had a shotgun and one of them was preparing to shoot him with it. No shotgun was found. Dunn bolted from the scene of the shooting and never called police.

He was arrested on a warrant the next day near his home.

I watched almost all of the trial and related proceedings in real time. A summary of what I heard and saw (my paraphrasing, but as if I were a juror) follows:

Mr. Dunn was parked next to an SUV outside a convenience store gas station while his fiancée went in to purchase snacks and wine. Very loud music emanated from the SUV which disturbed Mr. Dunn. He politely asked the occupants of the car to turn the music down. One of the occupants became enraged over the request and made insulting and then threatening comments, implying a present intention to inflict harm to Mr. Dunn. After a second verbal exchange, something which looked like a shotgun (to Dunn) appeared to be in the vehicle and was being positioned to be used by one occupant as he began to exit the SUV.

Mr. Dunn retrieved a pistol from his unlocked glove compartment, removed it from its holster, chambered a round and whirled to engage the perceived threat. He fired several times into the vehicle killing one of its four occupants. As the SUV was backing up, Mr. Dunn fired a second volley, and when the SUV was behind his car, he got out of his vehicle and re-engaged the SUV with a third volley of shots.

Mr. Dunn claimed to be in fear for his life for the first engagement (first and second volleys), and to have fired the third volley at the rear of the fleeing SUV to suppress a perceived continuing threat (even though no shotgun was then visible or any shots had been fired from the SUV) and/or he was on some sort of inexplicable autopilot. After the incident, somewhat suspiciously, the SUV left for three minutes and returned.

Dunn had come to the store from his son’s wedding where he had consumed alcohol. Mr. Dunn and his fiancée returned to their nearby motel, had dinner and more drinks, and went to bed. They did not call police or an attorney. The next morning they drove home. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Dunn was arrested.