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Ex-Lakeland commissioner Michael Dunn gets 3 years in prison for 2018 killing

Dunn pleaded guilty to manslaughter with a firearm, a charge that carries no minimum mandatory sentence.
Former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn takes a seat at the defense table during a negotiated plea sentencing hearing in court in Bartow on Monday.
Former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn takes a seat at the defense table during a negotiated plea sentencing hearing in court in Bartow on Monday. [ ERNST PETERS / THE LEDGER ]
Published May 23|Updated May 23

LAKELAND — Former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn was sentenced Monday to three years in prison for fatally shooting a homeless man who was suspected of trying to shoplift a hatchet from the military surplus store that Dunn managed.

Judge Donald Jacobsen sentenced Dunn on Monday after nearly four hours of testimony. He also sentenced Dunn to 10 years of probation and 200 hours of community service.

Dunn, who had been charged with second-degree murder for the 2018 shooting, reached a plea agreement with prosecutors in March, just three days before jury selection was to begin in his trial. In the agreement, Dunn pleaded guilty to manslaughter with a firearm, a charge that carries no minimum mandatory sentence.

Former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn dabs at a tear as he listens to testimony during a negotiated plea sentencing hearing in court in Bartow on Monday. Dunn was sentenced to three years in prison for fatally shooting Cristobal Lopez as Lopez allegedly tried to steal a hatchet from a military surplus store in Lakeland that Dunn managed.
Former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn dabs at a tear as he listens to testimony during a negotiated plea sentencing hearing in court in Bartow on Monday. Dunn was sentenced to three years in prison for fatally shooting Cristobal Lopez as Lopez allegedly tried to steal a hatchet from a military surplus store in Lakeland that Dunn managed. [ ERNST PETERS/ THE LEDGER ]

The conviction for manslaughter with a firearm can bring up to 30 years in prison, but the judge had discretion to impose less. In the plea agreement, the defense asked for a sentence no longer than 10 years, while prosecutors wanted up to 17½ years.

“It’s always a negotiation with the State, so 95% of cases work out with a resolution,” said Mark O’Mara, one of Dunn’s lawyers. “And we’ve worked with the state a long time to try to get this figured out and resolved. “Right now the sentence can be as little as nothing, in fact, and as much as 17.5 years, so it’s a range that gives the judge a lot of discretion,” Mark O’Mara, one of Dunn’s lawyers, said at the time of the plea.

Dunn has remained free on bond since his case began.

State Attorney Brian Haas said the plea brings closure to the family of the victim, avoids many years of lengthy and costly appeals and spares the family from enduring the emotional stress of a jury trial.

The sentencing comes about 3½ years after Dunn, 51, fatally shot Christobal Lopez on Oct. 3, 2018. Lopez, 51, was allegedly attempting to shoplift a hatchet at Vets Army Navy Surplus, the store just north of downtown Lakeland on Florida Avenue that Dunn managed.

The family of Christobal Lopez, the man fatally shot by former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn, released this undated photo shortly after Lopez's death, along with a statement saying they want to see justice done. [Photo courtesy Lopez family via Morgan and Morgan]
The family of Christobal Lopez, the man fatally shot by former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn, released this undated photo shortly after Lopez's death, along with a statement saying they want to see justice done. [Photo courtesy Lopez family via Morgan and Morgan]

Video surveillance at the store shows Lopez grabbed a hatchet and attempted to conceal it inside his clothes.

Dunn came out of an office armed with a Glock pistol and confronted Lopez. As Lopez tried to flee through a glass door, Dunn grabbed him and then shot twice into his torso. Lopez died at the scene.

Related: Did Lakeland commissioner need to kill suspected shoplifter? Investigation under way
Lakeland police say that 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 Department]
Lakeland police say that 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 Department]
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Dunn’s defense team claimed the shooting was justified under Florida’s “stand your ground” law. But in March 2021, Judge Donald Jacobsen dismissed that argument.

“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. An appeals court later refused to overturn Jacobsen’s ruling.

A grand jury indicted Dunn on the second-degree murder charge within a month of the incident, and he resigned from the Lakeland City Commission four days after being charged. He had been in office for about 10 months.

About a week before Dunn’s plea, Jacobsen rejected two defense experts — one a psychological expert and the other a toxicology expert.

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