A FAINT HINT OF JUSTICE

There are times when it’s hard not to be cynical about our criminal justice system — not when we have the highest incarceration rates in the civilized world; not when we lock up people for things as stupid and pointless as drug possession, or when the state’s sheriffs are rallying all their authoritarian muscle against an innocuous medical marijuana amendment (because God knows that prison pipeline needs constant nurturing); not when cops or self-appointed neighborhood watchmen can gun down unarmed black teenagers on the street and be held up in some corners of the world as heroes.

I felt that way — cynical — after the first Michael Dunn jury hung on the murder charge. Sure, Dunn was convicted on other counts, and those other counts all but ensured that he would spend the rest of his natural life behind bars, where, if there is a god in this universe, he will get to listen to loud thug music the rest of his miserable days. But it didn’t feel like justice for Jordan Davis; it felt as if his death didn’t matter, as if it didn’t matter that Dunn killed him and then drove away, drove back to his hotel room, walked the dog, had a drink, ordered pizza, took a nap, no big deal. It was as if some members of the jury believed, by virtue of the fact that Jordan was black and Dunn said so, that Jordan had an imaginary gun that nobody else ever saw or found, and that if Davis had just done what Dunn told him to do, none of this would have happened.

That anybody — anybody — bought that bullshit, in the year 2014, made me sick to my stomach.

I was cynical, too, when I read last year The New York Times’ absolutely devastating deconstruction of the St. Johns County Sheriff’s Office’s half-assed police work in the death of Michelle O’Connell, who supposedly shot herself with the gun belonging to her boyfriend, Deputy Jeremy Banks [Editor’s Note, “Bring on the Inquest,” Jeffrey C. Billman, Sept. 10]. The cops have, predictably enough, closed ranks behind their man, insisting — despite the mounting troubling questions — that the shoddy police investigation was good enough, nothing to see here, move along now.

For years, the O’Connell family waged battles in the media, trying to convince the district attorney or the sheriff or the governor or somebody, anybody, to reopen the investigation, to look at the case one more time, but kept running into the thick brick wall of the thin blue line.

And then this week happened. Last Tuesday morning, Sept. 30, Gov. Rick Scott ordered the investigation reopened and handed it off to Jeff Ashton, the Central Florida prosecutor and now Ninth Judicial Circuit State Attorney best known for losing the Casey Anthony trial. Perhaps he was hoping to score some election-season political points, or maybe he actually sees something amiss in the SJSO, or maybe he just wants to cover his ass, but either way, the governor did the right thing, and some hint of justice prevailed.

So, too, did justice finally prevail for Jordan Davis. That victory was mostly moral — Dunn will die in prison either way — and there were murmurings that it was also pyrrhic, not worth the cost to taxpayers of trying him again.

They were wrong. Jordan’s family deserved that verdict. And the rest of us deserved some reprieve, however brief, from the cynicism.

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