Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Public safety

Sue Carlton: Lives ruined for a gun in a park on a quiet Sunday

In all the testimony about what happened in a quiet neighborhood park on a Sunday afternoon, one small detail stood out.

The 69-year-old man came out of his house because he saw a kid skateboarding on the newly resurfaced basketball court and wanted it stopped.

A man in the park with his little girl disagreed.

This should have been the kind of get-off-my-lawn scene that plays out in suburban neighborhoods across America. It should have ended, at worst, in a spat between neighbors and maybe a hot topic for the next homeowners association meeting, right after residents who don't pick up after their dogs.

Except when Trevor Dooley confronted the boy, he was packing a gun. I keep remembering this detail from his testimony this week: He didn't bother putting on his shoes that day, but he did bring his gun.

Twin Lakes is the kind of Valrico community where parents feel safe letting kids ride bikes on winding streets. It has a nice community pool, a huge oak-shaded playground and a guard to keep out potential unpleasantness at night. Dooley carried his .32 in his pocket into a park where a little girl was shooting baskets with her dad, a couple was smacking around a tennis ball and a skinny blond kid was trying to perfect the art of jumping one skateboard over another.

David James, the dad there with his daughter, had already told the kid that skateboarding was okay. He and Dooley argued, then scuffled. James, 41, was shot and killed right there in front of his daughter, who was 8. Two years later, the senselessness is no less stunning.

The manslaughter arrest of Dooley, a school bus driver with a concealed weapons permit and no record, made big news in light of Florida's dubious stand your ground law. His defense: The bigger, younger man attacked, and he had a right to defend himself. He denied witness testimony that he flashed his gun, a weapon his lawyer indicated he carried out of "habit."

Really, though, does the controversy over stand your ground — and the mounting evidence of how it's been unevenly applied across the state — even matter here?

The human cost of the gun that day was everywhere in that courtroom. It was in the testimony of the skinny skateboarder, older and a head taller but still a boy who hung his mop of blond hair on the stand when they played back the 911 call. "It was my fault," he wept then. It was in a daughter without a father for the rest of her life. And it was Dooley's own wife of more than four decades, sitting in a courtroom pew bracketed by family but utterly alone, her face buried in her hands while he testified.

Before NRA types start soapboxing and bossing the Legislature around again, this was not about responsible, legal gun ownership. This was a deadly weapon improperly used, as the jury ultimately found. This was a gun where it never should have been.

It was disturbing that Dooley showed no remorse for the death of a man over something so absurd, even if in his heart he believes he was right. It was also sad to hear him say the guilty verdicts, handed down by a multiracial jury, were because he is black and the man who died was white.

No. It was about a gun in a neighborhood park on Sunday afternoon, and everything that single decision cost.

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