For Jordan Davis’ parents, a bond with Trayvon’s family, and prayers for a different trial outcome
(This story has been updated.) Ron Davis and Lucia McBath sit across the table from their attorney, John Philips, in the restaurant downstairs from their New York hotel. They’re in the city to do another in a series of television interviews booked sporadically since their 17-year-old son, Jordan Davis, was gunned down in a Jacksonville, Florida gas station parking lot last November 23rd, the day after Thanksgiving.
They order breakfast, and Davis recounts growing up in Queens, New York, though he was born in Harlem. He says his father was a boxing fan who once introduced him to Archie Moore. He smiles as he talks about meeting the late Angelo Dundee, who trained Muhammad Ali.
McBath, a Chicago native with a ready smile, raised Jordan on her own in his early years in Georgia, where the boy was born. The couple lived for about a year in Jacksonville and then near Atlanta after meeting in Texas, and later divorced. They share a connection to Delta airlines where she’s a flight attendant and from which Davis recently retired, after 33 years in Delta sales. McBath was recently named a national spokesperson for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
Davis, who is remarried, still lives in Jacksonville, where Jordan attended Samuel W. Wolfson High School, a magnet school which awarded the slain teen a posthumous diploma in June, which his parents accepted for him. He says the community has “taken Jordan to its bosom.”
McBath can’t imagine ever living in Florida again, or even visiting her timeshare there — though she will be in Jacksonville for the trial of the man who killed their son, expected to start September 23rd.
Four shots fired as the teens’ truck was backing away
Jordan Davis was sitting in a Dodge Durango SUV with three friends on November 23, 2012, parked at a Gate Food Post gas and convenience store on Jacksonville’s south side, when a car driven by 45-year-old Michael Dunn pulled up beside them. According to police reports, Dunn’s girlfriend went into the store to buy wine, and before long, gunshots rang out. After complaining to the teens about their loud music, a verbal altercation began and Dunn had fired at least nine shots into the car, with three striking Davis, who was in the rear, passenger side seat. None of the other teens was hurt, though TV news reports showed the red SUV riddled with bullets, and one of the bullets lodged in the driver’s overhead visor. Police said Dunn got out of his car and fired the last four shots as the SUV was backing away.
Dunn and his girlfriend, Rhonda Rouer, left the scene after the shooting, even ordering a pizza upon returning to their hotel, where they were staying after attending his son’s wedding. Rouer later told police in a videotaped interview that it was “her fault” the couple went home instead of going to police, because she wanted to get home to Brevard County and take care of their new dog. Dunn was arrested at home four days later, after police tracked him down using information from witnesses, including the Gate clerk, who gave police the tag number of Dunn’s Volkswagen sedan. He claimed he didn’t know anyone had been killed until the day after the shooting, when he saw it on the news.
Dunn is claiming not guilty under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. He told police he feared for his life — that the teens threatened to kill him and that he thought he saw the teen in the back seat raise a shotgun through the tinted window of the SUV. No gun was found, and while Dunn asked investigators during his videotaped interrogation, which was released by Jacksonville police, if what he saw could have been a “stick,” police didn’t find that, either. And Rouer never mentioned to police during her interrogation that Dunn told her he saw a gun.
Dunn is charged with first degree murder in Jordan’s death, as well as three counts of attempted murder.
Similarities to Trayvon Martin
Jordan’s parents can’t help to see the similarities between their son’s killing and that of Trayvon Martin.
Both would have turned 18 this February: Trayvon on the 5th, Jordan on the 16th. Both were black boys, shot to death by men who said they found the teens threatening, and claimed self-defense. The two boys died at similar times — around 7:30 p.m. on otherwise quiet evenings; Trayvon on a Sunday, Jordan on a Friday.
Angela Corey, the Duval County state attorney exported to Seminole County after being named special prosecutor by the Florida governor in the Zimmerman case, is the prosecutor in Dunn’s case too.
Two judges have recused themselves in the Dunn case, one pushed from the case after Dunn’s defense accused her of bias for denying him bond and denying his indigence claim. The Zimmerman trial cycled through three judges too – the first forced to recuse herself because her husband practiced law in the same firm as Mark NeJame, the star Orlando area attorney who does legal commentary for CNN, and who’s friends with Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara, and the second, Judge Kenneth Lester, removed after O’Mara accused Lester of bias for revoking Zimmerman’s bond after it was revealed that Zimmerman’s wife lied to the court about how much money the couple had available to them as they claimed indigence. As of April 2012, they had raised more than $200,000 from supporters.
Jordan’s parents worry about other potential similarities, including what they say were attacks on Trayvon Martin’s reputation by Zimmerman’s defenders. They worry that Dunn’s attorneys, or his defenders, will do the same thing to Jordan.
“We expect that that will definitely be a part of the defense, to discredit Jordan,” says McBath, who Davis and Phillips call Lucy. “But it would be hard to do so because nothing about his character has anything to do with the trial. The boys were simply sitting in the car. That’s were it all began, so it has nothing to with the character of Jordan, or any of the boys in the car.”
Reached for comment, Dunn’s attorney, Cory Strolla seemed to confirm that the backgrounds of the teens will be at least a potential issue, saying, “If there are no ‘character’ issues, than there isn’t any reason for their concerns. But maybe you should do your own due diligence and background check each individual yourself. Mr. Stornes, more specifically,” apparently referring to 18-year-old Tommie Stornes, who was in the car with Jordan. Some Florida news outlets have already begun looking into the backgrounds of Stornes and the other teens who were in the car that night.
Phillips and his clients say the real issue is what Dunn assumed about the boys when he opened fire on the truck.
Rouse told police Michael Dunn told her he hated the “thug music” blasting from the Durango. And Davis says Dunn through his original attorney, Robin Lemonidis, said Jordan and his friends “could have been in a gang or something,” and that he noted the SUV they were in “had heavily tinted windows.”
“Why would you assume that?” Davis says. “You haven’t even made physical contact with them and before you’ve said two words to them, you said they could have been in a gang. They look like thugs… And if you thought that, why didn’t you pull into another spot? They were already sitting there, playing their music. It’s 7:30 in the evening [on the night of the shooting.] It’s still light out. It’s not like you’re in a dark, secluded gas station. There’s no reason in the world that you should feel threatened.”
Jordan’s parents and the families of two other teens in the car that night have filed separate defamation suits, and in Jordan’s case, a wrongful death suit against Dunn.
Fears of attacks, and of a repeat of the Zimmerman trial
While he and McBath worry over the trial, Davis says the three other teens who were in the car with Jordan have other concerns.
“They’ve come over to the house a few times, and we’ve talked,” he says. “And that’s why they haven’t done interviews. They basically think that the people at large that support the NRA, and gun owners out there, are gonna come after them, not only their character but physically. They fear for their lives because of the fact that, here’s a guy that they didn’t even have physical contact with, shooting at them, trying to kill them. And so their thought as 17 and 18 year olds, is that, ‘we didn’t even have contact with him and he’s trying to kill us, what is the public gonna do, the ones that have guns?’ So they think people that have guns might come after them, so they’re basically living their lives almost in hiding.”
McBath and Davis’ attorney John Phillips adds that Leland, Jordan’s best friend, who was sitting next to him in the back seat when Jordan was shot, wrote a letter to the judge in the case before Dunn’s second bond hearing, “and it said exactly that, that I’m afraid for my life if this guy gets out.”
For Davis and McBath, however, the biggest fear is of a repeat of the result in the Zimmerman trial.
Phillips seeks to reassure them, pointing out that the circumstances of Jordan’s and Trayvon’s shootings are very different. For one thing, there are at least three witnesses to Jordan’s shooting — the other boys in the car. Also, because Dunn is charged with first degree murder — a capital crime — there will be 12 jurors on the panel, instead of six, which Phillips says reduces the chance that one juror, or three, can have undue influence on the other members of the panel. And this time, Corey her team are not visiting prosecutors. They’re on their home turf in Duval County.
Still, the parents grow visibly restless when asked if they have confidence that the team of prosecutors who failed to convict George Zimmerman of second degree murder or manslaughter will be more successful this time. They are hopeful that John Guy, who delivered the impassioned opening and closing arguments in the Zimmerman case, will be their lead prosecutor, though Sate Attorney Angela Corey will try the case herself. Jackelyn Barnard, Corey’s spokesperson, said Corey “took on this case in order to help teach and train” Assistant State Attorney Erin Wolfson “as she handles her first homicide case.” Wolfson is assigned to the case along with Corey and Guy.
Barnard added that “the Dunn case has nothing to do with the George Zimmerman case and cannot be compared to the Zimmerman case or trial.”
“I’d be lying if I said I was not concerned,” she says, adding that “we have been assured that even though the cases are similar, they’re different. We have been assured that the circumstances are different. We have been assured that even though Jordan is the victim, we still have witnesses. So we’ve been assured that Angela Corey’s team will do absolutely everything they can to cover all the bases.”
Davis is less diplomatic. “I for one, I don’t have faith in the justice system,” he says, “I don’t.” He supports peaceful protests like those that erupted after the Zimmerman not guilty verdict, and says calls for a tourism boycott of Florida might be the only way to get Gov. Scott and the legislature’s attention and push them to review the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law.
TheGrio reached out to Corey’s office for comment and received no response.
A normal, average kid
McBath smiles when asked to talk about her son. She says it helps her to be able to reminisce about the boy she calls “just your normal, average 17-year-old,” who loved music, with “always the ear buds in his ears.”
“He was very social, just loved having a lot of people around him all the time,” she says of Jordan as a boy, living with her in Georgia. “I used to always say that my house looked like the United Nations, because I had every ethnicity, every color, every race. The boys were always spending the night, and I was carting them around in the car with me… You would have thought I had five or six children, because we always had tons of children with us.”
“Jordan was a child of inclusion,” she says, “He wanted to include other children in the neighborhood who were latchkey children, and he was always the kind of child who would say mom, they don’t have what we have, their parents can’t afford to let them go roller skating or to the parks, we’ve gotta bring them with us.”
She beams as she brags about Jordan’s “great sense of humor,” adding: “he was a character.”
McBath says other kids in the neighborhood “looked to Jordan to be the leader, and he always was the leader of the group. [He was] just a warm, loving, happy young man.”
Davis, for his part, takes pride in Jordan’s love of music.
“He always wanted to be taller than me,” he laughs. “He was short by two inches. And he always wanted to make sure I knew that he could dance better than me. He loved music, he listened to a lot of different music, you know, he had to listen to R&B because I’m a Motown child. I grew up with Motown, so he listened to all of it. He knew the songs, from ‘My Girl’ on up. And then, I would have to listen to some of his music.”
Davis’ voice breaks a little. “He always liked to jump in the car no matter where I was going,” He says. “If he saw me getting ready to leave he’d say, ‘hold up dad’ and he would jump in the car he always just wanted to ride with me, anywhere, doesn’t matter. And that’s what I miss, you know? I miss that so much right now because sometimes I get in the car and emotionally I wait for him to jump in. And I know he’s not jumping in, but emotionally I sit there. I don’t get in the car and just pull off. I kind of get in the car and I wait a little bit. And I remember those times.”
Florida’s ‘not safe’
Davis and McBath have dived into the preparations for Dunn’s trial. That means plenty of questions for Phillips, a white, lifelong Republican with an Alabama drawl, who like 1.5 million Floridians, has a concealed carry permit. Phillips says he was moved to become involved in the case because he is a new father himself, and one of his child’s godparents had worked with Davis at Delta, and introduced them, after the photographers and reporters trailing the parents after a memorial service for their son made it clear they needed help. Now he says that he and his family, Ron and Lucy are as close as family themselves. And he says the experience, particularly in the wake of the George Zimmerman case, has been eye-opening.
Asked if he thinks Florida is safe for black men and boys like Jordan, Phillips says, “I don’t think it’s safe for anybody, but young black men especially.”
Phillips apportions much of the blame to Marion Hammer, the former and first female president of the NRA and the gun group’s lobbyist in Tallahassee for decades, and to the state legislators who do her bidding. Hammer has pushed through a number of controversial gun bills over the years, including Stand Your Ground, which passed the state Senate unanimously and was signed by then Governor Jeb Bush in 2005, and a 2011 law signed by Gov. Rick Scott that forbade doctors from asking their patients about the presence of guns in the home — a bill doctor’s and civil liberties groups successfully fought in court. It was struck down by a federal judge last year.
Whether or not Dunn successfully pursues a Stand Your Ground hearing, “he’ll still get to have that Stand Your Ground jury instruction that admittedly confused Juror B37” in the Zimmerman case, says Phillips, calling that instruction “almost the Get Out Of Jail Free card.”
“Walking this journey, the eye opening that I’ve gotten as a guy that was raised in Alabama, I mean I spent part of my life in Monroeville, Alabama, where ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ was set, and have seen some things that I’m embarrassed by. And to get to the point where a 77-year-old white woman can have such control over the government, that she can push Stand Your Ground through?” says Phillips.
Phillips says that before Stand Your Ground, shootings were judged by the facts: where the gun was, what the forensic evidence showed, and the circumstances. “What Stand Your Ground says is you don’t judge things by the facts anymore, you judge things by the mind of the killer, of the shooter,” Phillips says. “How can we judge anything by somebody’s mind? They can lie about their mind. The person who’s been shot is usually deceased, and they can’t give a counter testimony. And so you’re allowing depraved minds to have the only say-so.”
In September, a Duval County jury will attempt to look into the mind of Michael Dunn, who Davis and McBath say has shown no remorse for killing their son.
“Not at all,” Davis says, adding that during one hearing, during a recess, he “got within five or six feet” of Dunn, “and looked him eye to eye.”
“There was no remorse in his eyes,” Davis says. “He was busy smiling at his family when he was trying to get out on bond.”
Strolla called that characterization “just a bit biased, slightly self-serving and inappropriate since Mr. Dunn has been in a jail cell and unable to communicate with the Davis family or the media, unlike the Davis family and their civil attorney, who give press conferences, interviews, and social media updates about once a week on average since last year.”
“In fact,” Strolla offered, “the very first court appearance I made, I personally spoke to the step-father and personally offered condolences and support on behalf of the entire Dunn family. The parents were giving a video press conference and her husband was standing off to the side with Ms. Angela Corey present as well. In addition, I had also sent a written correspondence to the mother when she appeared on Soledad O’Brien, in which I further extended the same as above, but of course, it was never aired.”
Philips adds that there has been “nothing” from Dunn or his supporters. “Not even his attorney has given me the time of day.”
“Being right next to Ron [in the courtroom] when that happened, seeing Michael Dunn just absolutely stare and have the audacity to stare at Ron, I don’t know how Ron didn’t jump and grab him,” Phillips says.
Strolla’s response: “I believe that remark would be backwards to say the very least. The in-court deputies even had to approach Mr. Davis (on more than one occasion) and order him to back away from the galley entry door where Mr. Dunn was standing closely alongside undersigned counsel. There is also TV news footage showing Mr. Davis standing at the galley door staring at Mr. Dunn, who was not even looking his direction.”
‘This is bigger than us’
Like Sybrina Fulton, McBath says her deep faith in God is what has allowed her to “stand in the face of all the adversity.” And she has turned much of the outcome in the case over to a higher power.
This is bigger than all of us,” she says. “I think there’s a bigger picture here. And I believe God’s hand is truly controlling everything that has happened.”
She and Davis have been in touch with Trayvon Martin’s parents. The mothers began texting each other early this year, often sending each other scripture and “encouraging words.” Davis and Tracy Martin have been in touch by text and phone, and Davis says Martin texted him soon after Jordan was killed. He says the two men spoke of being “members of a club that no one ever, ever wants to be a part of,” and that he and Tracy Martin “will always be brothers, and we will always be there for each other.” Davis and McBath traveled to Miami in February for a rally in commemoration of what would have been Trayvon Martin’s 18th birthday.
McBath called her first face-to-face meeting with Sybrina Fulton “gut wrenching, because I had someone that i was looking at physically, in the eye, and i knew exactly what she was feeling and thinking. And we’re the same. We have suffered the same tragedies.” She says she remembers Fulton telling her “this is something that is beyond us. God has allowed these tragedies in our lives to happen for a reason. We have been chosen to make a difference through the voices of our boys.”
“I just remember her hugging me and saying, I love you, and we’re going to be fine, and we’re gonna make a difference, for not just Trayvon and Jordan, but for everyone. It was probably one of the more profound moments of my life.”
As for the man who killed their son, Davis said he would tell Michael Dunn to “search your heart and understand you did something horrible. And you have to ask yourself why did you do something so horrible to these children? Not only to kill my son, but to attempt to kill the other three individuals in the car. They’re just starting their life out, trying to earn a living, getting their fist apartment, trying to have their first girlfriends, to marry and have their kids… You’re trying to stop these kids from having a life that apparently you had. And if you can’t in your conscience and in your heart feel any sympathy for that, then you indeed should spend the rest of your life in prison.”
“I believe he’s already in prison now,” McBath chimes in. “Emotionally, psychologically, he’s living in a sense, in hell right now.”
She says she doesn’t expect that Dunn will ever apologize, though she prays that she is wrong. “I just can’t in good conscience understand where he was at that moment” she says of Dunn’s actions on the night her son’s life ended.
Still she says: “I have forgiven him. And I pray for him, literally every day. And people look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that. But I know that I don’t have a choice, I have to pray for him because I believe praying for that man will help me, will help Jordan, and I don’t have to carry that albatross around my neck. So if he never says I’m sorry, if he never says ‘forgive me,’ I’m OK with it … because I know we will continue to do what we’re doing regardless. And I feel sorry for him.”
“On the flip side of that,” she says, “He has created a way for us to really look at who we are. You can’t pretend anymore. The blinders are off now. If there is this level of racism, it can’t be under the table anymore. It has to be exposed so we can deal with it.”
Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport.