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“Loud Music” Murder Trial: Who is Judge Russell Healey?

“Loud Music” Murder Trial: Who is Judge Russell Healey?

A deeper look at a Judge struggling with his first high-profile case

Readers of Legal Insurrection will have noted our ongoing coverage of the Florida “loud music” trial, in which the defendant Michael Dunn is charged with 1st degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Davis.

The general narrative of events at the scene of the killing is that both men (Davis accompanied by three friends, Dunn by his fiancé) were fueling their cars at a local gas station. Davis’ vehicle was playing music at a sound unpleasant to Dunn—and indeed, forensics photos show a massive set of speakers mounted in the rear of Davis’ SUV—and he asked them to turn the music down. The youths declined, and an escalating and increasingly hostile verbal confrontation began.

Here the prosecution and defense narratives differ. The State essentially argues that Dunn was so enraged by the music that he drew his licensed pistol and shot Davis and his friends, Davis mortally.

The defense argues that Davis and his friends were making explicit deadly threats against him, and he only shot at them when he reasonably perceived what appeared to be a weapon. (No weapon was actually recovered from the vehicle, although this fact is of course not dispositive in a self-defense case, so long as Dunn’s perception of a weapon was reasonable even if mistaken).

Michael Dunn on trial on charges of 1st Degree murder for the shooting death of Jordan Davis

Michael Dunn on trial on charges of 1st Degree murder for the shooting death of Jordan Davis

Presiding Judge Russell Healey Becomes Center of Focus for Media Coverage of Trial

Much of the news about the trial, however, has had little to do with either the State’s case against Dunn or Dunn’s defense against the charges.

Instead, rather unusually, much of the last several week’s attention has focused primarily on the Judge overseeing the case, Judge Russell Healey. One might wonder, then, who is Russell Healey in terms of judicial background, experience, and temperament?

Judge Russell Healey is a County Judge Accustomed to Misdemeanor and Small Civil Trials

In fact, the Florida Times-Union newspaper asked, and answered, precisely that question in a piece published today: “Judge Russell Healey stands firm despite rough patches heading into Dunn trial.”

The article is, unfortunately, firewalled, so I’ll just touch upon some of the points that most struck me.

First, it is worth understanding the organizational structure of the Florida court system. Small civil cases and criminal misdemeanors are generally handled at the County Court level. The next level up, the Circuit Courts, typically handles the more serious felony criminal cases. Next, the District Court of Appeals handle appellate matters arising in the lower Circuit Courts.

Judge Healey is, in fact, a County Court judge (although he currently is among 23 applicants to become a Circuit Court judge in the 4th Circuit, where he is currently presiding). As such, his experience adjudicating cases has been largely limited to misdemeanor criminal charges and small-time civil matters. Neither type of case, it should be noted, would be of the sort to attract any meaningful media attention.

That said, it is not at all unusual in Florida for a County Court judge to stand-in at the Circuit Court level on a temporary basis if a Circuit judge is sick, or on vacation, or simply while waiting for a permanent Circuit assignment to be made following a retirement. Similar, it is not unusual for Circuit Court judges to take a temporary seat on the District Court of Appeals, for similar reasons. In fact, Florida state law requires identical qualifications for both County Court and Circuit Court judges.

Currently, the 4th Circuit has two existing vacancies, and had moved a third judge to solely handling civil cases. Furthermore, two other Circuit Court judges assigned to the Dunn case had previously recused themselves, further limiting the availability of Circuit judges for the trial.

As a result, and consistent with Florida practice, a County Court judge was called up to fill the slack—Judge Healey.

The Relatively Inexperienced Healey Finds Himself Presiding Over a Very High Profile Murder Trial

While such a posting for a County Court is not unusual, however, such a posting to as high-profile and media-intensive a trial as this one apparently is unusual, especially to a judge with such little actual experience in such a drama-prone setting.

The Florida Times-Union piece puts his relative inexperience in context by noting that the judge who oversaw the Casey Anthony case had been a Chief Circuit Judge before doing so. They also note that Judge Nelson who oversaw the Zimmerman case had been a Circuit Court judge for 13 years before being chosen for that case. (Interestingly, most of her Circuit Court work was in non-criminal cases, and some—including myself—have suggested that this lack of criminal case experience was starkly revealed throughout the Zimmerman trial.)

Circuit Judge Debra Nelson, who presided over the murder trial of George Zimmerman

Circuit Judge Debra Nelson, who presided over the murder trial of George Zimmerman

Healey’s Rulings on Release of Evidence Repeatedly Reversed, Sometimes Contradictory

It appears that Healey’s relative inexperience with felony cases, and particularly high-profile felony cases, is showing.

Healey’s rulings on various motions involving the release of discovery evidence to the media have already been smacked down three times by the 1st District Court of Appeals.

His conduct of an evidentiary hearing on the matter that began without the presence of the media intervenors who requested the hearing also raised eyebrows to the ceiling.

Finally, his decision this past Wednesday to toss the entire matter to the civil courts, after having ruled just the prior Friday that the discovery evidence was to be released to the media, has compelled the 1st District Court to reverse his Wednesday ruling (the third reversal on these discovery issues) and order an emergency hearing.

Given the thin bench presently in the 1st Circuit, and with the trial scheduled to start tomorrow, there seems little likelihood that yet a fourth Circuit judge will be assigned to replace Healey.

But, we suppose, in Florida jurisprudence just about anything is possible.

[Featured image source: News 4 Jacksonville]

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, (paperback and Kindle), Barnes & Noble (paperback and Nook), and elsewhere.


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google search
Judge Russell Healey stands firm despite rough patches heading into Dunn trial
and you get full item after asking 1 question.
printed it if needed

Hey Andrew, w

Who does the selection for the judicial call up? Is it random? Thanks for following these.


I seem to recall reading that there is a “certification” process for Florida judges handling serious felonies.

I could be conflating that with a certification for prosecutors, however.

In any case…

just damn…

Isn’t Nelson is the 18th Circuit in Seminole County?

Dunn deserves a judge with crimnal experience. His life is on the line.
Judge Healey’s trial by fire is not working out. Retrial in the offing.

Another Voice | February 2, 2014 at 2:47 pm

Prior to having the case dropped into Judge Healey’s court it’s stated “two other Circuit Court judges assigned to the Dunn case had previously recused themselves”. Is it known what circumstances or reasons why the other two judges took a pass on this, other than reaping the media oversight as did Judge Nelson as she bungled her way through the criminal trial of George Zimmerman.

I’m no lawyer, but a 1st degree charge seems absurd.

Was not the ‘yoot’ here already committing a misdemeanor offense by violating the noise ordinance? The loud music thing, perped overwhelmingly by blacks, is inherently an aggressive, anti-social behavior. That’s why there’s laws against it.

And then was he not guilty of menacing and communicating threats?

Are those acts considered misdemeanor or felony in FL?

My point is the poor ‘victim’ here seems responsible, perhaps criminally so, for provoking the whole thing.

If he had not been in violation of FL law in the first place none of this would have happened.

So I don’t see first degree–heck, I don’t even see a conviction.

    MouseTheLuckyDog in reply to bildung. | February 2, 2014 at 5:58 pm

    1. I agree about 1st degree and suspect the prosecutor overcharged to get a plea deal.
    2. According to the reports I heard. Dunn complained. Davis turn down the music. His freinds started arguing and someone else turned the music up. So I think it’s unfair to compain about Davis’s antisocial behavior.
    3. In Chicago it was mainly young hispanic males, and the biggest group by young single white, males in recently acquired 6 figure jobs who don’t give a flying f about the rest of the world that play music in their cars loud. Usually the whites are waering bigf flashy rolexes too.

    Frankly I think a combination insanity/self defense argument would be best. The loud music angered and annoyed Dunn so much that he was made temporarily insane and he imagined seeing a gun.

Who benefits from this situation?

And O/T, just for the record – Go Seahawks!!

MouseTheLuckyDog | February 2, 2014 at 6:02 pm

Actually did the DCA overturn Judge Healey’s last ruling?
They took the matter out of his hands and put it into the hands of a civil court judge. Isn’t that his ruling?

Andrew, Amy, Rags, Mouse… Hey, it’s like old times in here! 🙂
Hadn’t heard of this case until I saw a news report on it tonight. Sure can’t see how it is being called the “next Zimmerman case” except it is in Florida and has the same idiot prosecutors. Doesn’t look too good for this guy.

Anyway, just wanted to say HI! to all you guys I spent so much time with during the GZ trial.
I can’t believe I was getting up at 5:30 every day to watch that trial. LOL.

Cheers all!!!!