Strolla fails to gain narrative traction, makes several awkward missteps
The court moved through nine witnesses today, as they proceeded with the State’s presentation of its case in the “loud music” first degree murder trial of Michael Dunn, for the shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis.
These witnesses consisted of several first-responders to the scene, the three young-men who were with Davis in the Durango SUV when Dunn opened fire, and two witnesses who observed the SUV for the brief period it had pulled away from the gas station.
The first four witnesses were all first responders — three police officers and a Fire & Rescue paramedic — who arrived at the scene after the shooting had taken place. In order they were:
Robert Holmes, Patrol Officer, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office
Assistant State Attorney handled the direct examination of Holmes.
Holmes is a 7-year veteran of the police department, with prior Navy service. Perhaps the most remarkable part of his testimony to me was how little first aid training he’d received either as a policeman or seamen. Basically, his training was limited to CPR (last taught to him 7 years prior at the police academy) and how to use a tourniquet. Period.
Holmes described receiving the call of shots fired, arriving at the scene to see Jordan Davis cradled in the arms of his friends. Davis had no pulse. There was no pool of blood (of course, given the deep internal nature of the wound and the fact that Davis’ blood pressure would have been zero at that point, there wouldn’t be much blood). When Andrew Williams performed CPR compressions, however, Holmes observed blood coming from Davis’ back. He described Davis’ friends as shocked, as he drove them collectively back to the police station to meet with detectives.
On cross, Strolla asked why Holmes hadn’t performed first aid himself, rather than let a “civilian” do it. It was here Holmes explained the paucity of his first aid training, and indicated that he’d thought it best to defer to a civilian who purported to have greater skills.
Strolla also explored the apparent fact that the interviews conducted at the police station by detectives were not recorded, despite the station having adequate capabilities to do so. It seems he intends to argue that this allowed the statements of the Durango survivors to be altered and coordinated over time.
One interesting point on direct arose when Corey asked Holmes where his notebook was from the night of the shooting, and Holmes casually indicated that the notebook was gone, destroyed. This seemed as if it might have some import, but Strolla never touched upon it in cross.
Offline, a Federal law enforcement officer contacted me to share that in his service notebooks were dated and destroyed by fire at pre-determined intervals, to ensure the confidentiality of their contents. Perhaps a similar policy is being followed by the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.
Holmes came across as professional and objective, as is typical of police officers of any meaningful experience.
William Spicer, Engineer/Paramedic, Jacksonville Fire & Rescue
State Attorney Angela Corey led the direct examination of Spicer.
Spicer was the paramedic who attempted to treat Davis at the scene of the shooting and en route to the hospital. He has been trained as both an EMT as well as a higher-level Paramedic.
Corey inquired a bit about whether Spicer’s primary interest in such a scene is care of the patient or preservation of evidence. The response is self-evident, so the question can only have been intended to cut off a narrative that might have been exploited by the defense.
At one point Spicer stood to indicate where the gun-shot wound (GSW) was found mid-way up the right side of Davis’ body. During opening statements Guy had described the path of the bullet as penetrating the liver, both lungs and the aorta, clearly an unsurvivable injury.
On cross, Strolla made some snarky remarks about Spicer being better trained than a “junior lifeguard,” a clear reference to Andrew Williams. This kind of demeanor appears to be native to Strolla, and it does not to this lawyer’s eyes do his client much service.
Strolla then hit on a theme that would be repeated relentlessly — that of witnesses being either pre-occupied or so shocked that they really had no idea what was going on around them. This would appear to be key to his narrative that the four men in the SUV had possessed a weapon — justifying Dunn’s use of deadly force — but had stashed it before police arrived.
The difficulty is that the men were observed by multiple witnesses, none of whom saw a weapon being stashed, or any evidence of a weapon at all. How to overcome this? Argue that they didn’t see the weapon being stashed.because they were otherwise preoccupied or so shocked as to be unobservant.
In the case of Spicer, the cause of this inattention was that the paramedic’s primary concern is naturally the injured guy on the ground.
Sergeant Shore, Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office
ASA Wolfson once again led direct with Shore.
Shore was largely responsible for oversight of the crime scene until the homicide detectives took over, and thus was responsible for securing both the physical scene itself — with patrol cars and crime scene tape blocking access — and gathering together any witnesses.
Consistent with Strolla’s narrative that Davis’ weapon was “stashed” and never found, it is necessary that the crime scene have been less than fully secured. Naturally, a few patrol cars and some yellow tape do not an impermeable sphere make, so there was some opportunity for Strolla to point out areas where Shore wasn’t absolutely certain if this or that had been secured at one or another moment in time.
Strolla also asked about Shore’s knowledge of traffic volume in the plaza immediately adjacent and accessible to the gas station where the shooting occurred. Indeed, it is this plaza where the red SUV stopped after fleeing the gunfire and before returning to the gas station for help. The busier and less controlled the plaza traffic, the easier it would have been for a stashed weapon to have been retrieved unobserved.
Meh. It was not compelling cross.
Michael Forster, then-patrolman (currently bailiff), Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office
ASA Wolfson was again on direct for Forster.
Forster was currently a bailiff, but at the time of the shooting had been a responding Patrol officer to the scene. He was mostly involved in securing the physical area of the crime scene. Strolla again sought to point out weaknesses in this security on cross. Again, meh.
For all these first four witnesses, the state’s direct was largely procedural, as well as intending to diminish the ability of defense counsel Cory Strolla to create reasonable doubt on the basis of improper, inadequate, or incompetent investigative practices. Strolla’s remit on cross-examination was to try to accomplish precisely that objective.
It was the fifth witness of the morning, however, that took the greatest time and provided the most interesting testimony.
Kevin Thompson, Durango Passenger
Kevin Thompson was one of the four young men in the Durango when Michael Dunn opened fire. He was seated in the front passenger seat, and directly across from Dunn in the driver’s seat of his Volkswagon. This was the first witness of the trial able to testify as to the actual events.
Assistant State Attorney John Guy, not active since giving the State’s opening, led direct on Thompson.
Also present in the courtroom during Thompson’s testimony were the parents of Jordan Davis, seen here to the left and right behind the woman in the foreground. They are Ron Davis and Lucia McBath.
The camera also caught the impassive image of the defendant, Michael Dunn, several times during Thompson’s testimony.
Thompson described himself as good friends with Jordan Davis, as well as with Leland Brunson, and Tommy Storns.
This is as good an opportunity as any to make explicit where each of the four men were sitting in the red Durango SUV at the time of the shooting. Storns was the owner and driver of the vehicle. Kevin Thompson sat in the front passenger seat. Jordan Davis sat immediately behind Thompson, and Leland Brunson sat behind the driver, Storns.
Asked by Guy to describe their plans for the night, Thompson answered, “To pick up girls.” This drew laughter from the court room. He described how the boys had gotten together that evening, and their general activities leading up to their arrival at the gas station. When asked, he indicated that they were all in a pleasant and gregarious state of mind, just hanging out.
Here we first encounter (well, first since Strolla’s opening) this odd issue of the child safety locks on the SUV. There seems continued confusion over whether we are talking about the locks that secure the doors, or the lock that allows the driver to freeze the rear window controls.
If the doors, the issue could be relevant. The defense wishes to argue that Davis conducted himself as if he was going to exit the SUV and attack Dunn. If, however, it was impossible to open the SUV rear doors from the inside, and this was known to Davis, it seems unlikely that he would have made motions to exit the vehicle.
Thompson reported on direct that it was the child door locks that were engaged (but other occupants of the car would disagree).
Thompson testified that their red SUV was parked at the curb of the convenience store, front to the store, with Tommy Storns inside buying gum, when Dunn and his girlfriend pulled up next to them in his black Volkswagen Jetta.
The rap music in the SUV was playing loudly enough to rattle the windows and mirrors of the vehicle. Thompson testified that Dunn said, “Turn the music down, I can’t hear myself think,” and that he did so. With Thompson in the front passenger seat of the SUV and Dunn in the driver’s seat of the Jetta, they were essentially beside each other, although the SUV was of course much higher.
Behind Thompson, however, Jordan Davis said, “Fuck that nigger, turn the music back up.” Thompson testified that he did so, but not quite as loud as before. At this point a verbal confrontation apparently began between Davis and Dunn. Thompson recalled Davis telling Dunn, “Fuck you.”
When asked by Guy if Thompson had seen Davis or anyone else threaten Dunn, he answered in the negative. Asked if he’d seen any of the boys with a weapon, Thompson said, no.
Thompson described seeing Dunn’s gun, and testified that Dunn said, “Are you talking to me?” speaking to Jordan. Thompson told Storns, now back from the store, to get them out of there. That’s when Dunn started firing, into Davis’ door (presumably the first burst of three rounds).
Storns put the car in reverse, and backed out rapidly, turning so that for a moment he was in T-formation with Dunn’s Jetta. Dunn continued to fire at the SUV (presumably the second burst of four rounds). Then Storns put the SUV in drive, and sped away from the Jetta.
Dunn continued firing as they withdrew (presumably the third burst of three rounds)
Upon hearing the firing, Thompson leaned sideways towards the driver’s position, and away from the source of the fire. Asked by Guy how he’d felt, he said “scared.”
The SUV sped away, tires squealing, a short distance to the parking lot of the adjacent plaza. Storns was calling out their names to see if everyone was OK. Thompson and Brunson replied, but Davis did not. Thompson got out of the front passenger seat and observed three bullet holes in Davis’ door.
At this point Guy displaced an image of Dunn’s pistol, which appears to be a Beretta based on the 92 platform, or a Taurus copy.
Realizing that Davis had been hit, Storns put the SUV in reverse, and backed up rapidly to the gas station, taking a spot some spaces away from where they had previously been parked. By this time Dunn had left the scene. Thompson then goes on to describe the efforts to save Davis in much the same way as previously described by Williams, Holmes, and Spicer.
Later that night Thompson was shown a set of photographs, and from those identified Michael Dunn.
On cross, Strolla pushed the theme of panic, and of being scared and terrified, for the reasons already described (to devalue the credibility of Thompson’s testimony).
Strolla also pressed the point that neither Thompson nor any of the other boys called 911 while they were stopped at the plaza. Obviously, Strolla’s narrative requires that the boys were busy stashing their weapon during this time.
Strolla also questioned the credibility of Thompson’s claims that he could have heard this or that person say one or another thing, given the volume of the rap music. He also emphasized that it was Davis who was using profanity targeted at Dunn, not the reverse.
He made the same point in suggesting that Thompson’s attention was also necessarily turned away from Dunn when Thompson was changing the volume of the music.
Somewhat sadly, at one point Strolla used the phrase “shotgun position” to describe that Thompson was seated in the front passenger seat of the SUV.
Following Thompson’s testimony, the court recessed for lunch.
Leland Brunson, Durango Passenger
The next witness called by the police was also a passenger in the Durango — this time, Leland Brunson, who sat beside Jordan Davis, and behind the driver Tommy Storns, in the SUV.
Brunson’s testimony was essentially the same, on all meaningful points, as Thompson’s, so there’s not much sense in going over it in detail. Instead I’ll just touch on the variances.
Under direct by Guy, Brunson did testify that he had seen Davis put his hand on the door handle, as if he intended to exit the vehicle, mid-way through the verbal altercation with Dunn. He testified, however, that Davis did not, in fact, exit the vehicle.
He also testified that Davis was gesticulating with his right hand, in which he held a cell phone, but that he never made gun-like or similar motions with his hand.
When Davis failed to respond to Storns’ inquiry if everyone was alright, Brunson said he tried to check Davis for injury, and got blood on his hands as a result. Davis, he says was gasping for air.
On cross, Strolla hit again on the points that Dunn was not yelling at the boys or banging on his steering wheel, or otherwise appeared violent prior to the actual shooting. Brunson said Dunn was speaking in a normal, conversational tone of voice. He also agreed that Dunn had never tried to get out of his car.
Brunson agreed that it was Davis who was yelling, getting more mad, and driving the escalation of the situation.
Again, Strolla suggested that the reason none of the boys had called 911 during their brief stop at the plaza was in order to stash a weapon. It was also revealed that Davis himself had, in fact, been armed, with a “Smith & Wesson tactical knife.” Given that there was no evidence that the knife had ever been taken from Davis’ pocket, however, it seemed of little import other than to give Strolla an excuse to throw the name “Smith & Wesson” before the jury.
Brunson also denied Strolla’s suggestion that the boys might have walked over to bushes beside the gas station even after they’d returned to the gas station, apparently another opportunity for them to have disposed of a weapon. He also suggested that Brunson was so upset that he would not have noticed had a weapon been disposed of.
On re-cross Guy addressed the more important of Strolla’s narrative point. Brunson agreed that he certainly would have seen had a shotgun been disposed of, and that nothing whatever was taken out of the SUV except for Jordan Davis’ body (an emotive opportunity for Guy, who fairly shouted “BODY!”).
Brunson also testified that the “child locks” being discussed were in fact the door, not the window, locks, because earlier in the evening the boys in the rear of the SUV had not been able to exit until Storns and Thompson had let them out.
Tommy Storns, Durango Driver
The next witness was the last of the boys from the Durango, this time the owner and driver, Tommy Storns.
Again, the bulk of Storns testimony was consistent in all important respects with that of Thompson and Brunson.
Recall that Storns was the only one of the boys to leave the SUV to walk into the store, to purchase gum and cigarettes. He walked back to the SUV, apparently while Davis and Dunn were arguing — he testified he was unaware of their verbal confrontation — and was no sooner seated in the driver’s seat when he heard Thompson urge him to get out of there. Immediately thereafter the first burst of shots rang out.
Storns testified that the second round of gunshots rang out as he was backing up, and the third set when he had put the truck in drive and begun driving over to the plaza parking lot a short distance away.
Guy did disclose that at the time of the shooting Storns was on probation for a third degree felony conviction, and that he was in fact out past his curfew. As a consequence, Storns’ probation was continued (rather than terminated early, apparently a frequent occurrence in the Jacksonville area).
Guy inquired whether anybody from the state attorneys office or the Jacksonville police department had helped Storns keep his probation, rather than being sent back to jail, and Storns replied in the negative.
Guy also played the piece of video tape in which Storns could be observed making his purchase.
On cross, Strolla attempted to undermine Storns’ credibility by suggesting that he had inappropriately discussed his testimony with others, and by watching portions of the trial on television the day before.
Somewhat oddly, he also suggested that Storns was “addicted to cigarettes.” As someone who used to be addicted to cigarettes myself, I can only assume the statement is true for any habitual tobacco smoker — but so what?
Strolla also attempted to suggest that Storns had been given favorable treatment on his probation violation, but this never really got traction.
It was also revealed that a month or so after Davis’ death, Storns had published a song entitled “Jordan Davis” to the internet. Strolla suggested this was a money-making effort. Again, I ask, so what?
Guy polished any sharp edges off of Strolla’s cross upon his re-direct of Storns.
Melissa LeBlanc, Plaza Parking Lot Witness
Next up was Melissa LeBlanc (the “c” is silent; I will refer to her by her first name because her brother would also testify). Melissa was leaving a dinner at a plaza restaurant with her brother and his 2-year-old son, and were walking back to her car when they heard the gun shots, heard the squealing tires of the SUV, and saw the truck rushing in their direction. The truck stopped short a short distance away, and Melissa and his brother rushed to get the toddler strapped in so they could leave the vicinity of the violence.
While doing so, however, Melissa observed much of the conduct around the now stopped SUV. In particular, they saw both Storns, the driver, and Thompson, in the front passenger seat, exit the vehicle and open the corresponding rear doors. Shortly thereafter, they re-entered the SUV, Storns threw the vehicle in reverse, and they sped backwards back to the gas station.
Under direct by Guy, Melissa testified that she saw nothing taken from the vehicle, a direct blow to Strolla’s “stashed weapon” narrative.
She testified that her brother called 911 as they departed the scene, and she also spoke with the 911 operator to provide her home address in the event that the police wished to speak with her. A couple of days later she returned home from work to find a detective’s card on her door, and within the next two weeks she had been interviewed by homicide detectives investigating the shooting.
She also testified that she had never seen a weapon, whether a shotgun or any other sort, while observing the Durango.
On cross Strolla sought to emphasize that she couldn’t possibly have seen the Durango from every angle, and therefore the occupants could have had the opportunity to engage in activities of which she would be unaware. She agreed that she couldn’t testify to what she hadn’t seen.
He also sought to implicitly criticize the investigation by noting the two week delay in her being interviewed by homicide detectives.
On re-direct, Guy clarified that she’d seen no indication of any sort of weapon, and that her recollection of events had not changed during the two weeks before she was interviewed by homicide detectives.
Christopher LeBlanc, Plaza Parking Lot Witness
The last witness of the day was Christopher LeBlanc, who was with his sister Melissa LeBlanc as they observed the Durango stopped in the plaza parking lot.
His testimony was essentially the same as hers, differing in only a couple of respects.
First, in his initial reports to police he had suggested that the occupants of the vehicle appeared as if they were trying to stash something inside the vehicle. Strolla would use this language, stripped of the “inside the vehicle” portion, in an effort to buttress his “stashed the weapon” narrative. This was a weak effort, adequately addressed by Guy on re-direct.
Second, Strolla disclosed that Christopher had had a warrant out for his arrest, and suggested that Assistant State Attorney John Guy had helped resolve the warrant in exchange for cooperative testimony.
Under re-direct, however, it was revealed that the warrant had apparently been issued in error on the mistaken belief that Christopher’s driver’s license had expired. Christopher stated that he had no knowledge of the warrant until he received a phone call about it from Guy.
(Curiously enough, when I was a much younger man and applying to join the New York Police Department, I arrived at a meeting with the detectives performing my background check to be informed that my driver’s license had been suspended, and a bench warrant issued, due to an unpaid ticket for an expired inspection sticker. I’d had no idea. When asked how I’d arrived at their offices, I promptly answered, “subway.” Fortunately, neither detective was in view when I later pulled out of the parking lot.)
In any case, Guy had arranged for Christopher to get a court date, Christopher appeared in court, showed the prosecutor charged with his case his valid driver’s license, and the warrant was dismissed.
Court Continues Tomorrow, 9AM to 5PM, At Juror Request
That was it for the day, except for Judge Healey’s closing comments. He did note that at the jurors’ request the trial would continue through Saturday, from 9AM to 5PM. Sunday, however, would be a day of rest.
I’ll be back here at Legal Insurrection with live video streaming and real time Tweets.
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See you all back in court!
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.DONATE
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