We Americans end our national anthem with a question: “O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”
But in Florida—the Sunshine State—those of us whose skin has been kissed by the sun are still awaiting a response to that question.
For the second time in six months, the world stood still for countless people awaiting a verdict from Florida. Two verdicts for two killers who robbed parents, siblings and loved ones of precious gems and great promise. Two verdicts exposing the fraying of the fabric covering Lady Justice’s eyes—fabric that’s supposed to show that justice is blind.
As we’ve all learned by now, on Saturday a Florida jury convicted Michael Dunn of three counts of attempted second-degree murder and one count of shooting into an occupied vehicle, but could not reach a verdict on the murder charge for Jordan Davis’ killing, thus a mistrial was declared. And it’s here where black lawyers see events unfold from a unique perspective: We sit on a proverbial fence and really get to look into both yards.
As attorneys, we can say (and sincerely believe) that the jury was diligent, and that the mistrial can mean a host of things—the jury couldn’t agree on first- versus second-degree murder, or guilty versus acquittal or any number of combinations. We have the legal training and experience to unpack and dissect the verdicts and what the mistrial means.
But, there’s another part of us that existed before we were admitted to the bar—we’re black. And as young, black attorneys, we must press the issue beyond the Dunn verdict.
Otherwise, the law provides a means for the unsubstantiated claim of fear as a reason to execute our children without punishment. Fear, held by not only the killer, but by others in the community, that at times overrides common sense. Jordan Davis and countless other children like him will never have the opportunity to become attorneys. How conflicted, then, is the black lawyer: We swear to uphold the law that too often does not protect us, or our children. We believe in justice and fairness; however, we cannot extract our profession from the reality that on any given day we can be perceived as threatening, and be shot and killed for doing nothing more than being black. These components are intertwined, and they are the experience of the only 7 percent of the nation’s lawyers who are African American.
“Stand your ground” language—stating that no matter where you step your foot, you have no duty to retreat and can stand your ground and meet force with force, including deadly force—is a license to kill. After you’ve killed, you can claim that you were in fear, and there is often no one alive to refute that. If someone walks around with a preconceived notion that black men are threatening, “Stand your ground” laws place black men’s lives at risk daily for doing not much more than breathing.
The potential to make America as good as her promise—and to answer, yes, this is the land of the free and the home of the brave—was locked inside of Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin. The members of the Young Lawyers Division of the National Bar Association will continue to work and fight until these “Stand your ground” laws are eliminated. We call on all law students, lawyers and the lay community to work with us in this effort. We call on Florida prosecutors to retry the first-degree murder case against Michael Dunn and seek justice for Jordan Davis. All lives are precious and worthy to be lived. Jordan was denied that chance. We must not allow another child to be denied that right.