Open Letter About Michael Dunn Trial

PolicyLink Founder and CEO Angela Glover Blackwell joined dozens of equity advocates in an open letter to Florida Prosecutor Angela Corey and the wider legal community about the trial of Michael Dunn on charges of killing unarmed black teenager Jordan Davis (pictured here). Dunn was convicted on charges of attempted murder, but the jury failed to reach a verdict on the murder charge. The letter urges Prosecutor Corey and the wider legal community to incorporate a race-explicit strategy that recognizes the role of implicit racial bias in cases like this one.

Here’s an excerpt.

Something went wrong in efforts to seek justice for the death of Jordan Davis. While we applaud the conviction on charges of attempted murder, we are concerned about the jury’s failure to reach a verdict on the murder charge. That is not only disappointing – it is dangerous. It indicates that a portion of the jury believed the shooting that resulted in Jordan Davis’ death wasjordan-davis-pic justifiable, despite evidence to the contrary. While we fully understand the unpredictable nature of juries, we are convinced that this is a case in which implicit racial bias played a role.

We are heartened by your intention to retry Michael Dunn on the murder charge. Whether in the retrial of this defendant or in cases your office will try in the future, we urge you to replace your team’s current race-silent approach with a race-explicit strategy. Such a strategy requires educating your staff about how racial bias operates in the legal arena, developing methods to uncover it, and where appropriate, using a race-explicit approach.

We understand there is pressure to avoid explicit mention of race in courtrooms, with the possible exception of hate crimes cases. This is, frankly, no different from similar pressures in business, schools, hospitals and other arenas in which leaders have adopted a race-silent ethic. Yet we also know that most Americans do not want to be racist and are open to interventions that help them recognize when they may be interpreting facts or the law through the lens of implicit racial bias. Absent an explicit counter-strategy, these biases can and do affect any number of discretionary decisions that are made in our legal arena.

Twice now prosecution teams under your leadership have chosen not to clearly and unequivocally name racial bias as a factor in the killing of black teenagers: first, in the trial of George Zimmerman, and second, in the Dunn case. In the Dunn trial, your team chose not to point out that the defendant had an expectation that his request to turn down the music would be accommodated. When it wasn’t, his level of rage was exacerbated by the notion that a white man has authority over a young black man. A clear explanation to the jury of this phenomenon would have helped them assess the validity of the defendant’s claim that the perceived threat required deadly force as a response.

We all hold implicit racial biases. These biases affect judge and jury, many of whom would not claim or even be aware of having them. An article in the 2013 issue of the North Carolina Law Review defines implicit bias as unintentional bias arising from attitudes and stereotypes that affect our understanding, decision making, and behavior, without our even realizing it. Most Americans have implicit biases toward people of color, particularly toward blacks. Not because they seek to be harmful, but because implicit bias has “…its roots in negative, highly pervasive stereotypes about Blacks, which are perpetuated by our culture in subtle, highly effective ways.” Identifying and naming implicit racial bias as a factor in legal settings can be and is being done, but justice demands we do more.

Read the full letter.

 

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