State emphasizes Dunn’s animosity, premeditation; the Defense weak police work, provocation, emotional trauma
The key legal narratives of both the State and defense began to emerge this afternoon as the Michael Dunn “loud music” murder trial kicked off with an afternoon launch.
Dunn, 47-years-old, is charged with 1st degree murder for the shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis. The State believes Dunn shot Jordan out of anger over Jordan’s loud music, whereas Dunn claims he shot in lawful self-defense. Dunn is also charged with attempted murder for shooting the other three young men in the car, Leland Brunson, Tevin Thompson, and Tommie Storns. Finally, he is charged with the offense of firing a gun into an occupied vehicle.
The trial started with Judge Russel Healey instructing the jury on their responsibilities in hearing the case, as well as various procedural facets common to any criminal trial.
Assistant State Attorney John Guy Delivers Opening for Prosecution
Following these introductory remarks, the State’s opening was presented by Assistant State Attorney John Guy, and delivered in the emotive style so familiar from his performances during the Zimmerman trial. Alas, he chose to speak in such a soft voice that he was essentially inaudible. The use of headphones, however, makes it possible to hear his remarks.
Consistent with the state going for 1st degree murder, and barring that 2nd degree murder, Guy emphasized the several concrete steps Dunn had to take in order to bring fire upon the Durango — open glove compartment, remove pistol, chamber a round, grip the gun with both hands, fire, fire again, fire again, etc. — all presumably to set the hook for premeditation and first degree murder. In addition, he emphasized Dunn’s angry use of deadly force violence in response to being, as Guy put it, merely disrespected, to set the hook for malice necessary for second degree murder.
Attorney Cory Strolla Delivers Opening for the Defense
Defense Attorney Cory Strolla spent roughly twice as much time on his opening remarks, focusing on the three themes beloved by all defense counsel. First, the evidence is weak and contradictory and was collected and evaluated by police and prosecutors in an unprofessional and untrusthworthy manner. Second, if any one of the jurors has not been convinced beyond a reasonable doubt of Dunn’s guilt, “stick to your guns” and do not allow yourself to be persuaded by the other jurors — each of you is bound to make your own decision. And three, if you can hold off coming to a conclusion until we have a chance to present our side of things, you’ll see that there are reasonable explanations for our client’s conduct on every front.
Following the defense opening statement, Judge Healey moved immediately to the state’s witnesses for the day, which numbered seven. Unlike her background role in the Zimmerman trial, here State Attorney Angela Corey took the leading role, assuming responsibility for direct questioning herself.
Elia Harris, Girlfriend of Jordan Davis
The first state witness was Elia Harris, girlfriend of Jordan Davis, who met with Davis shortly before his death later that night. The State’s focus was on whether it appeared that Davis might have been angry that evening. Harris indicated he was not. The defense asked if Harris was aware that Davis was armed with a knife that night She said she was not. That was about it for Harris, whose primary value for the State would seem to be the generation of sympathy for Davis among the jury.
Steven Smith, General Contractor
The second State witness, and the one longest on the witness stand, was Steven Smith, a general contractor. Smith arrived at the gas station when the red Durango SUV was blasting its loud music — in fact, he left a parking spot beside the Durango to move to a more distant spot, specifically because of the noise — and was walking out of the gas station market when the shots were fired. Corey used this as an opportunity to ask whether there were plenty of parking spaces available, and he agreed that there were. This was clearly intended to plant in the jurors’ minds the notion that Dunn could simply have done as Smith, and moved his car to a further spot, rather than initiate his interaction with the Davis group.
Perhaps the most damning point of Smith’s testimony for the defense is when the State had him describe what he heard Dunn shout: “YOU’RE NOT GOING TO TALK TO ME THAT WAY!” They even had him shout it in the courtroom at the approximate value he heard it the night of the shooting. When asked if he heard anyone in the SUV speak to anyone, he answered, “No, ma’am.”
The State also had Smith mimic the motions of Dunn retrieving, charging, and firing his gun. The emphasis on the fact that Dunn had to first chamber a round in his semi-automatic pistol will surely be a lynchpin of the State’s arguments supporting the premeditation necessary for a 1st degree murder conviction.
It was also during Smith’s testimony (as well as later) that the surveillance audio/video was played in court, allowing one to hear the tempo of the 10 fired shots. They occurred in three distinct bursts, with each burst being fired about as rapidly as a typical person can manipulate a trigger: BANGBANGBANG . . . BANGBANGBANGBANG . . . BANGBANGBANG.
Smith also testified that he never saw any of the young men exit the car prior to the shooting, or with a weapon, nor throw anything from the car.
On cross examination, Cory Strolla emphasized that in fact Smith did not have the SUV under continuous surveillance, particularly when it had pulled away from the station and before it had returned. Smith conceded this point.
The defense gained a little ground when Smith conceded that he had characterized Dunn’s demeanor following the shooting as “panicked.”
Other than that, however, Smith was mostly quite damaging to the defense.
Perhaps it was because of this that Strolla made what certainly appears a remarkable blunder near the end of his cross of Smith, when he asked him: “Is it possible that what you heard Dunn say is, “You’re not going to kill me?” rather than “You’re not going to talk to me?” Smith simply responded, “No, sir.”
Andrew Williams, Christian Chaperone
The court then recessed for a 20 minute break, before returning with the State’s third witness, Andrew Williams.
Williams was in the vicinity of the gas station that night because he and his wife were chaperoning two teenagers from the church on their first date. Williams appears to have arrived at the scene after the shooting, after both the Durango and Dunn’s Volkswagen had pulled away, and just as the Durango pulled back up in front of the convenience store at the far end of the curb parking. Williams became clearly emotional at several points in his testimony, especially when he described observing the mortally wounded Davis inside the SUV, working with a police officer to place Davis on the ground, and attempting to perform CPR.
Presumably because of his physical activity in removing Davis from the SUV, Corey asked him if he had seen anything that could have appeared like a weapon. Williams said no. She also asked him about the demeanor of the three other young men in the SUV, whom William described as “shook up.”
“Were any of them crying?” Corey asked. “All of them,” answered Williams.
On cross examination Strolla again emphasized how traumatic an event it had been for all involved — unstated, of course, was for Dunn, as well. He also spent considerable time asking Williams, in a rather mocking manner, about his first aid qualifications. These were, in fact, almost non-existent, being based on his time as a junior life guard 5 years earlier. Corey effectively undid whatever defense value this line of questioning was supposed to have by asking on re-direct,”Weren’t you just trying to help?” to which Williams responded softly, “Yes.”
Strolla also emphasized that Williams had not, in fact, carefully observed all the activities around the Durango and by the other young men inside that vehicle, and that he had in fact not been observing them at all during the time they had initially pulled away from the gas station. This, presumably, to buttress his argument that the men in the vehicle had left to dispose of their weapon before returning to the gas station to seek help for Davis.
Shaun Atkins, Convict
The next witness for the state was Shaun Atkins. He was living with his girlfriend out of his car at the time, homeless, when he observed the events at the gas station. Later, he would be convicted of 25 felony counts of theft, and he is currently serving a 7-year sentence after having been prosecuted by Corey’s office. He appeared in court wearing green prison garb and hand-and-foot manacles. (These could be heard jangling and banging against the witness table and chair throughout his testimony.) It was Atkins, remarkably enough, who had noted and written down the license plate number of Dunn’s Volkswagen.
Otherwise, Atkins’ testimony was unremarkable, except for when the 25-count felony thief explained why it was that he had waited outside, beside his car, while his girlfriend went alone into the convenience store to purchase some items: “I stayed to watch our stuff, make sure nothing was stolen.” Irony.
Following the questioning of Atkins, Corey stepped aside and Assistant State Attorney Erin Wolfson assumed responsibility for direct examination of the state’s remaining witnesses for the day.
Mariah Grimes, Gas Station Cashier
The first witness questioned by Wolfson was Mariah Grimes, a clerk at the Gates gas station working the register the night of the shooting.
It was during her testimony that we again saw the surveillance footage, and heard the tempo of the fired shots. In the footage, Grimes can be seen handling a transaction for items being purchased by Dunn’s fiance.
Sadly, I was compelled to step away during the direct of Grimes, so I’ll have to defer to other sources to share those events. When I returned, Grimes was being cross-examined by Strolla. Strangely, Grimes seemed to place the Durango several parking spaces away from Dunn’s Volkswagen, whereas every other relevant witness had placed the cars in adjacent parking spots. Strolla also again emphasized the stress of the event, noting, “You were freaked out, fair to say? You were shaken up?” Grimes agreed.
Strolla also spent considerable time noting that the witnesses to events had been gathered together by law enforcement in such a manner that they could have discussed each other’s perceptions of events and thereby effectively contaminated their later recollection. Not much ground seemed to be gained here by the defense.
Lillian Christiansen, Gas Station Manager
Next up was Lillian Christiansen, the assistant manager at the Gates gas station the night of the shooting.
Christiansen was remarkably accurate in her recollection of the number of shots fired, being almost perfectly correct for each of the three bursts. (Eye witnesses are infamously poor at shot counting and recollection.) Wolfson also had Christiansen’s 911 call played for the jury, bringing back memories of the Zimmerman trial.
On cross it soon became evident that Christiansen held considerable resentment towards Strolla. When he mentioned, for example, that he wanted to make sure he wasn’t putting words in her mouth, she assured him that he wasn’t, paused, and added, “This time.” Strolla asked, “So, we’re doing OK then?” She answered, “So far.”
Strolla used his cross to again try to cast the police as incompetents, pointing out that they had not asked Christiansen for the surveillance recording but rather she had offered it to them. He also again repeated his “traumatic events” meme, for the same purposes as previously noted.
Samantha Eichas, Auto Parts Delivery Driver
Finally, the last witness of the day was Samanta Eichas, who is a parts delivery driver and was out working that night when she stopped at the gas station convenience store.
Only questioned for a few minutes by either side, Eichas interestingly described the gun fire as a single burst. Upon being asked by Wolfson, she described the demeanor of the three survivors of the shooting as “shocked.”
On cross Strolla mostly banged some more on the “traumatic events” meme. He also again sought to undermine police credibility by having Eichas discuss how even after she was detained she was permitted to talk with her boyfriend numerous times by cell phone — again, the types of acts that could theoretically contaminate eye witness testimony.
Upon re-cross, Wolfson emphasized that Eichas’ boyfriend was also her auto parts manager at the time, and it was necessary for her to call in to explain why she wasn’t making her deliveries and where the work truck she was driving was located.
And that was it for the first day of the trial. The jury’s notes were gathered up and secured by the bailiffs, and the jurors were led away to sequestration in their hotel.
Tomorrow morning we’re back at it again, 9AM. Join us!
Andrew F. Branca is an MA lawyer and the author of the seminal book “The Law of Self Defense, 2nd Edition,” available at the Law of Self Defense blog, Amazon.com (paperback and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (paperback and Nook), and elsewhere.