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Looking at the right of Self Defense in Massachusetts after the Dunn Trial

The doctrine of self-defense is one of a few powerful defenses to the most serious crimes, which could lead to a not-guilty verdict if used by an experienced defense attorney. The recent Florida trial of Michael Dunn is one example of this defense successfully raised against a first-degree murder charge, although it caused a hung jury rather than a not guilty verdict.

The jury in “the loud music trial” of Michael Dunn recently reached a verdict of guilty on three counts of attempted murder and one count of shooting at a vehicle. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on the first degree murder charge, however, which could carry the death penalty in the state of Florida.

Dunn argued that he acted in self-defense when he shot 10 rounds into a Dodge Durango containing four individuals, fatally shooting teenager Jordan Davis. Dunn confronted the individuals in their vehicle in a convenience store parking lot because he disapproved of their loud music. During the confrontation, Dunn alleged that he became fearful for his life when he saw what he thought was a barrel of a gun in their vehicle. According to his lawyer, Dunn grabbed and fired his own weapon to protect himself and thwart off an attack rather than wait to become the victim.

Under the current convictions, Dunn, 47, faces a minimum of 60-75 years in prison. The prosecutor is currently considering retrying the first-degree murder charge.

As demonstrated in this case, the claim of self-defense is one of the most powerful, and most difficult, arguments to raise in court. In Massachusetts, once the defendant raises evidence establishing that he acted in self-defense, the Commonwealth must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant was not acting in self-defense when he caused the injury leading to the victim’s death.

There are multiple ways that the Commonwealth could defeat a self-defense claim. In a case where the defendant used deadly force (as in the Dunn trial), the Commonwealth will defeat the self-defense claim if it proves beyond a reasonable doubt that:

  • the defendant did not reasonably and actually believe he was in imminent danger of serious bodily injury or death;
  • the defendant used more force than was reasonably necessary to defend himself; or
  • the defendant did not do everything reasonable under the circumstances to avoid combat and to resort to defending himself.

It is important to note that, under Massachusetts law, every individual has a duty to attempt to retreat from combat. If an individual is confronted with a potentially life-threatening situation, he must attempt to retreat, flee, or seek cover prior to using physical force. The individual may use physical force in self-defense only If there is no other way out of the situation. That is why the Commonwealth may defeat a self-defense claim by proving that the defendant did not do everything reasonable under the circumstances to avoid combat.

In the trial of Michael Dunn, Dunn’s defense attorney was able to argue self-defense to the extent that the jury doubted whether it was really so unreasonable for Dunn to act in the way that he did. The defense needs to only raise even the smallest doubt on the jury’s mind to prevent a conviction (see page on proof beyond a reasonable doubt). Although Dunn’s claim may not have been completely persuasive, it was sufficiently persuasive to give the jury reason to doubt Dunn’s guilt in the death of Jordan Davis.

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