Judge Rejects Michael Dunn’s Bid to Avoid Murder Trial

Former City Commissioner Michael Dunn is closer to standing trial for second-degree murder after Circuit Judge Donald G. Jacobsen today denied his motion to dismiss the charge on self-defense grounds.

“The state has proved by clear and convincing evidence that deadly force was not justified at the time the Defendant shot and killed the victim,” Jacobsen wrote in an eight-page order issued this morning.

Read Jacobsen’s order here or at the end of this article.

Dunn, 50, sought in a hearing last week to have the murder charge dismissed under Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which gives defendants immunity from prosecution if they can prove the act was committed in self-defense.

Dunn faces a second-degree murder charge in the shooting death of Cristóbal Lopez on Oct. 3, 2018, at the Vets Army Navy Surplus store on Florida Avenue in downtown Lakeland. Dunn, who was the store manager, confronted Lopez after he observed him picking up a hatchet and concealing it in his pants.

Extensive surveillance video that recorded the entire incident provided the bulk of the evidence Jacobsen cited in today’s ruling.

“To justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstance would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force,” Jacobsen wrote.

Dunn had served on the Lakeland commission about 10 months at the time of the incident, having defeated the late Larry Durrence the previous December. He resigned from the commission four days after criminal charges were filed.

He is free on pre-trial release that includes restrictions on his travel.

There was no immediate comment today from Dunn’s lawyers or the prosecutors, The Ledger reported.

A review of the incident timeline, summarized from Jacobsen’s review of multiple surveillance videos, follows:

Dunn, sitting in his office with his door open, observed Lopez enter the hatchet aisle, look at something on the shelf, then conceal the tool in the front of his pants. Dunn stood up and armed himself with his Glock firearm. He places it at his beltline in the small of his back and goes to the front of the store to confront Lopez if he tries to leave.

Lopez first goes to the register area with the hatchet still in his pants and walks towards Dunn, who reaches his right hand back toward his gun. Dunn asked if Lopez was going to pay for the hatchet and instructs employee David Duncan to call police about a shoplifting incident.

As the hatchet falls to the floor, Lopez bends to pick it up and then approached the register counter saying, ”I pay, I pay.” 

Dunn continues telling Duncan to call the police. Lopez appeared to decide to leave, moving across the front of the counter while Dunn takes steps back towards the door and draws his firearm. Lopez had the hatchet cupped in his right hand but he didn’t raise it or his right arm, Jacobson notes.

Meanwhile, Dunn, gun drawn, pushes Lopez by placing his left hand on the man’s left shoulder. Lopez tries to get past Dunn and can be seen pushing the door open with his left hand and arm. At that point Dunn grabbed Lopez’s shirt and began pulling on it as Lopez tried to leave. Dunn’s gun is pointed at Lopez while attempting to pull him back into the store. Analysis describes the hatchet visible in Lopez’s right hand and the various parts of the tool as it relates to the door.

Dunn is seen shooting Lopez twice as the victim’s shirt is ripped or he loses his grip on the man. He was struck just under the left chest with the bullet traveling through his body and several organs and also across his back.

The exterior video (camera #1) shows Dunn standing over the victim as he lies dying. The gun is still drawn as police arrive minutes later.

“The Defendant knew full well that the victim had a hatchet concealed in his pants and confronted him,” Jacobsen wrote. “Upon being confronted, the victim attempted to pay for the hatchet, but apparently realizing the police were still going to be called, attempted to leave.”

Jacobsen stated that a shoplifting incident with someone stealing a hatchet could turn into a potentially threatening incident and would justify Dunn arming himself. Dunn may have believed that some deadly force would be wise if the victim had attempted to assault him.

Key to his ruling, Jacobsen found the video showed circumstances changed as Dunn grabbed Lopez and that it was unreasonable for him to use deadly force at that point. Unreasonable, as Jacobsen wrote, because using deadly force would be “to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or to another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”

“A reasonably cautious and prudent person under those circumstances (as clearly depicted in the videos) would not have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of deadline force,” Jacobsen wrote.

The next step in the case is a pretrial conference scheduled for May 10, at which Jacobsen could set a trial date.

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