Why we can’t see Jordan Davis and why it matters

February 17

On Saturday, we learned the outcome of the trial of Michael Dunn for the shooting that resulted in the death of 17 -year-old Jordan Davis in 2012. Divergence between Dunn’s guilty convictions on three counts of attempted murder and one count of shooting into an occupied vehicle, but jury deadlock on the murder count for the death of Davis, have spurred a search for meaning and explanation.

If and when we hear from jurors about their deliberations, we may have more to work with in order to offer such explanations.

(The Florida Times-Union, Kelly Jordan/ Associated Press)
(The Florida Times-Union, Kelly Jordan/ Associated Press)

But there’s an equally pressing question to be addressed now: Where was Jordan Davis in this entire ordeal? The answer is that Jordan Davis, the individual human being, was—still is—problematically absent. Problematically because in the absence of his individuality, cognitive biases based on social cognition become pervasive. For Davis, that surely means notions of race—and likely gender, perhaps youth—have stood in for information about him. And for a young black male, the consequences involve penalties beyond erasure of the individual.

On that November night, it seems most likely that Davis was not visible to Dunn. That group-based stereotypes fill in and inform our impressions and beliefs about others in the absence of individual information is well-established psychology. A fleeting encounter in a parking lot fits that circumstance well. Moreover, in this sort of context, research on stereotypes suggests (gated), the little individual information that was available—the music, the friends, even the words he exchanged with Dunn—would be more likely to be construed in stereotypic terms. Their meaning would likely be imputed from underlying stereotypes of Davis’s social category—young black male.  And, as I wrote in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, plenty of research demonstrates that this category carries unique burdens of social malign, including pervasive stereotypes of violence and aggression. The music and friends become more likely to suggest “gang” or “thugs”—as Dunn would later call the boys in letters from his jail cell.  Words exchanged become more likely to be heard as threats, whether or not they were intended as such. Add in a firearm carried by Dunn, and Davis becomes more vulnerable to the well-established shooter bias, wherein stereotypes of black males drive biased snap judgments (gated) about threat even by well-trained police officers, resulting in greater propensities to shoot unarmed black men.

But Jordan Davis did not emerge any more clearly in the legal process or media coverage thereof that followed.

The trial was not unlike the parking lot in terms of the availability of individuating information about Davis. Both prosecution and defense took Dunn’s claim of threat in the parking lot that night to be central to the case, and the credibility of those present that night to be central to making that claim.  Testimony from Davis’s friends who were in the vehicle focused on recounts of the encounter, not the background character of Davis. Personal character details about the victims generally came from the defense, packaged as attempts to undermine the boys’ credibility. Defense attorney Cory Strolla, for example, confronted Tommie Stornes on the witness stand with claims that he was addicted to cigarettes and drank when he smoked. Individuating information about Davis and his friends strong enough to counteract biased processing of the proceedings—on the part of jury members or the public watching—based on stereotypes of young black males was missing. Stereotype-consistent statements that would encourage such biased processing were present.

A courtroom environment where race is present but not consciously checked is precisely the kind that research has shown is conducive to a number of cognitive biases entering the legal process. Studies have shown that jurors in these circumstances are more likely to selectively remember and misremember the facts of the case in ways that are more consistent with racial stereotypes—being more likely to recall, for example, facts related to aggression by African Americans. They also demonstrate that white jurors are more likely (pdf) to find black defendants guilty in the absence of conscious processing of the racial meaning of the case.  While this case did not involve a black defendant, it did involve a need for jurors to judge the culpability of Jordan Davis for his own death in order to decide upon Dunn’s self-defense claims.  Whether and how the absence of individuating details about Davis in the trial mattered in the jury’s decisions thus stands an open but legitimate question.

Widespread media attention for the case might suggest the possibility that at least the public had the chance to see Jordan Davis. Indeed, attention to the trial violates documented patterns (pdf) of media concentration to the point of significant over-reporting on crimes involving white victims and of under-reporting on crimes involving black victims. Research on these patterns is consistent with anecdotal impressions that the cases we hear most about are those involving white female victims—think Laci Peterson, Amber Hagerman, Natalee Holloway, and JonBenet Ramsey—because white female victims are most likely to invoke interest and empathy. Not only do we end up engaged in their stories, but those stories become capable of spurring political action (gated) for policy change in response to the case, like Laci and Conner’s Law and Amber Alerts.

That the trial was quickly deemed the “loud music trial” in the media, however, tells another story for Jordan Davis. It suggests dehumanization of the alleged crime and its victim. What defined interest in the event being covered was not empathy for the death of a young person, nor even fixation on the actions of the man who killed him, but the culturally resonant and problematic behavior of the victim before the crime took place. This framing gave the story its newsworthiness. And it also prevented us from learning more about Jordan Davis as a victim, about the life lost. Those details were made less relevant by the frame of the story. And one likely and important consequence is that without such empathetic detail, the case lost potential as an impetus for political action to change related policy—most notably Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground Law,” which some have already attempted to push to repeal in the name of Jordan Davis.

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Dan Hopkins | February 17