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Former Lakeland commissioner’s ‘stand your ground’ bid to dismiss murder charge denied

The three-judge appeals panel concurred with the trial judge’s ruling that Dunn’s fatal shooting of Christobal Lopez was not justified under Florida’s ‘stand your ground’ law.
Lakeland police say that former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn shot and killed Christobal Lopez as Lopez tried to leave the Vets Army Navy Surplus store on Oct. 3, 2018, without paying for a hatchet. This is a screen grab of a store surveillance video released by police.
Lakeland police say that former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn shot and killed Christobal Lopez as Lopez tried to leave the Vets Army Navy Surplus store on Oct. 3, 2018, without paying for a hatchet. This is a screen grab of a store surveillance video released by police.
Published Jul. 21
Updated Jul. 22

A panel of appeals court judges has rejected former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn’s bid to have murder charges dismissed.

The three-judge panel from Florida’s Second District Court of Appeal denied a request from Dunn’s lawyers to halt his prosecution under a “stand your ground” claim. Dunn, 49, faces a charge of second-degree murder in the 2018 fatal shooting of a man inside the Lakeland store where Dunn worked as a manager.

The panel, consisting of Judges Nelly Khouzam, Anthony K. Black and J. Andrew Atkinson, denied the appeal without comment, as is common when a decision concurs with that made by a trial judge.

Circuit Judge Donald Jacobsen, who presided over an immunity hearing, ruled in March that Dunn’s fatal shooting of Christobal Lopez was not justified under Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

Photos of Michael Dunn, left, and Christobal Lopez.
Photos of Michael Dunn, left, and Christobal Lopez. [ Photos provided ]

Dunn’s lawyers, James R. “Rusty” Franklin of Bartow and Mark O’Mara of Orlando, filed a 40-page motion for dismissal in April. They argued that Dunn had a legitimate fear of harm from Lopez, who was holding a hatchet inside the Vets Army Navy Surplus store on Oct. 3, 2018, as he headed for the exit.

Dunn, who saw Lopez take the hatchet from a sales display and conceal it in his pants, seized a pistol and left his office, eventually confronting Lopez near the shop’s door.

Dunn fired two shots into Lopez’s chest. Lopez, 50, fell to the group just outside the door and soon died.

The decision of the appeals court means Dunn’s case will now proceed to trial. A pretrial conference is scheduled for Aug. 16 in Bartow.

Former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn looks back to supporters in the courtroom during a bond reduction hearing in court in Bartow in October 2018.
Former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn looks back to supporters in the courtroom during a bond reduction hearing in court in Bartow in October 2018. [ Ernst Peters / The Ledger ]

Part of the episode was captured on surveillance video in the store. Jacobsen relied heavily on that video evidence in denying Dunn’s claim that he should not be prosecuted because he shot Lopez in self-defense.

Jacobsen ruled that Lopez didn’t present a threat in the final moments of the encounter, as he attempted to push open the door and leave the shop. Dunn grabbed Lopez by the shirt near the door before shooting him.

In making their appeal, Dunn’s lawyers argued that Jacobsen erred in focusing too much on the final seconds of Dunn’s fatal encounter with an alleged shoplifter. The lawyers wrote that Jacobsen committed a “reversible error” in ruling that Dunn’s use of force was not justified to prevent death or great bodily harm.

The petition says Jacobsen also erred in failing to address whether Dunn’s actions were a justified response to the imminent commission of a forcible felony.

“I respect the court’s decision, although I didn’t agree with their interpretation of the case law applying to the facts,” O’Mara said. “We certainly respect the decision and will abide by it.”

Dunn resigned from the Lakeland City Commission after being charged. He has been free on bond as the case has proceeded.

Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.