When Michael Dunn was on trial for killing a 17-year-old in Jacksonville, most didn’t know much more about the victim other than that he was shot over a dispute over “loud music.” But before Jordan Davis became another symbol of Florida’s deeply divisive “stand your ground” policy, he was just a kid. This is his story, told by the friends and family who knew him best.
On Monday nights, Jordan Davis skated at the roller rink in his Atlanta-area neighborhood of Marietta, Ga. Skating was only a dollar. Pizza and soda only cost a dollar too. Jordan went every Monday for five years.
Jordan’s mom, Lucy McBath, piled the kids from Jordan’s homeschool co-op group into her SUV and drove them to rink. She liked to skate too. “It would be funny because I would deliberately be passing him and be like, â€˜Hey, Jordan,'” Lucy said during a recent interview with BuzzFeed. “I would be needling him as I was skating past: Jordan, I love you!”
“Mom, you’re embarrassing me!” Jordan would respond.
Once a night at the roller rink, a special song came on that meant it was time to race. “Come on, Mom, I can beat you! I can beat you,” Jordan said to Lucy one time. Both very skilled skaters, they started to race, going around the bends at breakneck speeds, and then Jordan “pooped out.” Lucy flew by and was like, “Gotcha, gotcha!”
“Mom, you chumped me! You’re not supposed to let my friends see you beat me like that,” Jordan said.
“I was like, you challenged me. I’m just as competitive as you. I’m going to go after it!” recalled Lucy, laughing.
Most of the world knows Jordan Davis’ name but might not know that he was born and raised in Atlanta. He was a “miracle child,” born in 1995 to Delta airline employees Lucy and her husband Ron Davis, who didn’t think they would ever have kids because of a procedure that removed part of Lucy’s uterus.
After his parents divorced, Jordan Davis spent most of his childhood shuttling back and forth on free Delta flights between Atlanta and Jacksonville, where Ron lives. Jordan would eventually move in with his father for good a month before his 16th birthday. He had lived in Florida for only 18 months before he was shot and killed.
During the trial of Michael Dunn, the 47-year-old white man who shot Jordan Davis while he sat in the backseat of an SUV with three friends in the parking lot of a Jacksonville gas station, Dunn’s lawyer Cory Strolla introduced Jordan Davis to the world as a thug. A gangster. According to Dunn’s defense, Jordan Davis threatened to kill Dunn after arguing with him about the loud rap music blaring from the teens’ automobile. It was publicized as the “Loud Music Trial.” What never really came out in the trial, however, was a sense of who, exactly, Jordan Davis was, to the people who knew him best, before he became a symbol.
“Fuck that n****r! Turn it back up!”
These were the words Jordan Davis said to Michael Dunn during an argument over loud music in a Jacksonville gas station parking lot on Black Friday, Nov. 23, 2012.
Strolla repeated these words in his opening statement, loudly enunciating every syllable.
“The boys had menacing looks on their faces.”
“There was a barrel, a shotgun. I know when I see one.”
“I was in fear for my life.”
Dunn said in court he was “quivering like a leaf” as he reached into the glove compartment, pulled a 9mm handgun, cocked it back, and shouted, “You’re not going to talk to me that way!” before unloading the clip into the SUV that Jordan and his friends were in. Rather than call the police, Dunn drove off with his girlfriend to a bed-and-breakfast and ordered pizza.
One after another, the three boys in the car with Jordan that night — Tevin Thompson, Leland Brunson, and Tommie Stornes — testified that Davis didn’t have a gun and police never found one during their investigation.
A year and a half before he was gunned down in Jacksonville, Jordan Davis was moved to Florida under protest. “He was mad at me,” Lucy said. “He would say, â€˜I always want to live with you.’ He thought I was punishing him.”
Jordan was only 7 the first time Lucy was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she never discussed it with him, she just told him simply that Mom was sick. But at 15, Jordan knew what she was going through this time. He tried to be as strong as he could, but to Lucy, he appeared angry, possibly because he was afraid of what was going to happen to her. Lucy decided that Jordan should go live with Ron while she went through treatment.
Leaving Atlanta midway through his sophomore year was especially hard for Jordan because he had just gotten used to a new school, Marietta High School. After she had trouble getting him into one of the top elementary schools because of district rules, Lucy homeschooled Jordan from fourth until eighth grade. When it came time to enter high school, Lucy thought it was important that her son have a more social academic environment.
He worked hard to convince the kids at Marietta that he wasn’t the “weird, homeschool kid” according to his mom. He would always say, “I want everyone to know who I am. I want to be friends with everybody.” And now that he was friends with everybody (“the jocks and the skinny-jeans kids too,” according to Lucy), he had to up and leave Marietta for Jacksonville and another new school, Wolfson High.
“He didn’t want to go. He didn’t want to leave us,” said Davis VanBuren, one of Jordan’s best friends at Marietta. “He had to go down there and take care of business. He told us he was going to come back every weekend.”
Jordan did go back to Atlanta a lot. As VanBuren recalled, he visited at least twice a month. “He would call me every time. Within, like, 20 minutes of him arriving at his house me and a few other friends would be over there.”
After he moved to Florida, Jordan didn’t talk to his mom or return her texts for a while. Then after four weeks, his attitude about Jacksonville changed — maybe it was because he fell in love with the beach, his dad said.
“We’d go to Jacksonville Beach and turn our backs in the water and compete to see who could stand up to the waves,” Ron said. “Sometimes the wave would hit us and knock us both over. That was the biggest laugh we had, that was that father-son laugh. That was it, when I think we laughed the hardest together.”
Despite the two living apart for the better part of 10 years, when Jordan moved in with his dad, they had a good relationship — thanks largely to their shared love for music and competing with each other. They spent time racing in their condo’s lap pool and playing Xbox. “Every , he would make sure that it had at least two players. If it was a one-player game, he didn’t want any part of it. He wanted to beat Dad,” Ron said.
While it took some time for Jordan to forgive his mom and dad for moving him down to Florida, it took exactly one school day for Jordan to meet his best friend in Jacksonville.
Aaron Johnson was sitting with a group of guys in his last-period history class when he spotted Jordan Davis, sitting alone with his head down across the room. “We called him over and he immediately sat down and started making jokes,” Aaron recalls. “Within a few minutes it was like we knew Jordan forever.”
From them on, Jordan, the jokester, hung out with Aaron and his other friends outside the school in the morning before class. “As I got off the bus in the morning, and I’m walking up to him, you could already hear him telling a joke about me,” Aaron said.
Once they became friends, Jordan spent almost every weekend sleeping over at Aaron’s house. Aaron lived in a neighborhood with more kids, and his mom would let them hang out outside or stay up late playing video games until 3 a.m. Jordan would always want extra pillows, so Aaron had to tell him to bring his own. “I can still picture him getting out of his car with his two extra pillows,” Aaron said.
When they weren’t hanging out with the neighborhood kids, playing football, basketball, or manhunt, Aaron and Jordan would be at the mall, checking out the clothing stores and the girls. “[Jordan] was real into his clothes. He always wanted, like, mad clothes so he could talk to girls. He had a Louis Vuitton wallet,” Aaron said.
The night he died, Jordan was at the mall with Aaron just hours before. When they parted ways that night, they were planning to meet up at another mall. “It’s a small mall so you’ll see me,” were the last words Aaron said to Jordan. In Aaron’s mind he never really got to say a proper good-bye to his friend that night.
“Jordan was a mouthy kid, like any other teenager,” Aaron said. “But I definitely know Jordan wasn’t the type to have any weapon. When I heard [he had a weapon the night he got killed], I knew it was a lie.”
Cristina Ledford, Wolfson’s music teacher, remembers Jordan as a “mouthy” kid too. Mouthy and with a “big ol’ grin.” When Ledford met Jordan Davis she thought he was going to be a problem. On her first day at Wolfson, he skipped her class.
It was five minutes into Ledford’s last-period music appreciation class and Davis was pressing Ledford to let him go to the bathroom. She rebuffed him three times, telling him he had to wait for another student to return with the pass. She also wasn’t buying that it was an emergency as Davis insisted. “He had a big ol’ grin on his face,” Ledford said. She finished writing the class expectations on the board. When she turned around, Jordan Davis was gone. He didn’t come back for the entire class.
The next day, as the students for her music appreciation class walked down the hallway toward Ms. Ledford’s class, the only name she could remember was Jordan Davis. She asked him to see her in her office. She sat him down and pulled out a form that the administration had given her the day before to write Jordan up for skipping. Ledford asked Jordan what happened.
He explained to her that it was honestly an emergency and he spent the whole period in the bathroom. He apologized for leaving abruptly, but then burst out laughing as he explained that he was trying to avoid an embarrassing situation. He flashed that same grin, and Ledford put the form back into his desk, nearly in tears from fighting the urge to laugh herself.
The first day back at school after Jordan died, Ledford remembers standing at the door outside her final period music appreciation class for about three minutes past the tardy bell.
“In the back of my head, I think I was waiting for Jordan to come around because I always saw him coming around the corner with his headphones in and his pants hanging a little low, and his hat on,” Ledford said. “His head bopping to the music and that big ol’ grin on his face.”
One of the girls in the class came and grabbed Ledford by the arm and said, “Ms. Ledford, he’s not coming.” When the door closed, the class just cried. Even the kids who had little behavior issues sat stunned. Some students were inconsolable and had to leave the room with guidance counselors.
“I had all of the kids do a memory card for Jordan’s parents,” Ledford said. Ledford collected more than 200 memory cards and gave them to Lucy McBath at Jordan Davis’ wake, along with a worksheet he had done really well on. “I said to her, â€˜Ma’am, I’ve never had a parent-teacher conference in front of one of my students who is no longer living.'”
The memory cards led to Ledford’s decision to “retire” Jordan’s chair. She created a special cabinet filled with the covers of Rolling Stone and Jet about Jordan’s death, pictures of him, and the sign she had put on his chair so nobody would sit in all year. She had only known Jordan Davis for three months.
The week before he died, Jordan called his mom and asked her if she would not go to Chicago for Thanksgiving so that he could come back to Atlanta and see his friends. He pressed her change her plans; she pressed him to come to Chicago with her. They ended up agreeing that he would go back to Atlanta for Christmas.
On Thanksgiving, Jordan left his mom a voicemail: “Mom, I love ya, much love to you. I’m really happy today. I just want to say Happy Thanksgiving. Tell everyone I love them. Happy Turkey Day. Peace out.”
They talked later that night, Jordan telling her he’d had a good day, ate a lot, and he was happy he stayed in Jacksonville because he was going to get to hang out with some friends. It was the last time they spoke.
When Ron Davis asked his son to bless the table at dinner, Jordan would normally “back out or say something silly.” So at Thanksgiving in 2012, when he asked Jordan to say a prayer, he was astounded when Jordan offered a “well-thought-out prayer” according to his dad. “He prayed for a lot of people, a lot of family members; it was a sustained prayer, I couldn’t believe it.”
Ron Davis’ last conversation with his son would be brief. Ron was heading to work at the Hampton Inn. He’d retired from Delta and was working at the hotel to earn extra money to help Jordan get a car. Jordan said he was going to the mall to visit his girlfriend and asked if he could have a few bucks. Ron gave him some money and reminded him what time to be home. “Yeah, Dad,” Jordan said. “I’ll see you when you get home from work.”
Ron remembered their last moment together: “I hugged him. And he hugged me. And I always thank God that the last time I saw my son we hugged and we smiled at each other. So many people can’t say that.” A few hours later, he got the call at the Hampton Inn that Jordan had been shot.
In Atlanta, Davis VanBuren didn’t get the news about his friend’s death until the morning after it happened when a friend messaged him on Facebook: “Did you hear what happened to Jordan?”
On Nov. 23, 2012, VanBuren spoke with Jordan and they talked about plans for their birthdays. Davis VanBuren’s 18th birthday was Feb. 15, 2013. Jordan Davis’ 18th birthday would have been the next day.
The next morning when VanBuren got the Facebook message, the first thing he wrote back was: Jordan who? Still, Jordan Davis was the first person who popped into his head.
“I had to tell somebody so I called my parents,” VanBuren said. “Then I tried calling Jordan. Of course his phone was off. I didn’t really know what to do. I was in shock for a while.”
On March 24, 2014, Michael Dunn was scheduled to be sentenced to prison for the rest of his life. Even though the jury did not find Dunn guilty of Jordan’s death — the judge declared a mistrial on the first-degree murder charge after the jury said it was deadlocked — he was convicted of three other counts of attempted murder for the three other passengers in the car that night. Those charges alone carry a minimum of 20 years apiece. Dunn was also convicted of shooting into a vehicle, which carries a minimum three-year sentence. At 47, he’ll serve at least 63 years in jail and likely die in prison.
A retrial in the murder charge for Jordan’s death against Dunn is set to start May 5. The judge decided to delay sentencing until after Dunn is tried again for gunning down Jordan Davis. Prior to the decision to delay sentencing, Strolla reportedly quit Dunn’s case because his client is out of money.
The new trial and justice that Jordan Davis’ parents, family, friends, and teachers hope for will have less to do with whether a jury gets to know the real Jordan Davis this time, and more to do with whether or not they believe Michael Dunn was scared that night. Whether they believe that Dunn felt his life was being threatened and, under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, had a right to defend himself.
If the jury sees Michael Dunn as he sees himself, it may not matter if they see Jordan Davis as a mouthy teenager instead of a gangster. A jokester with a “big ol’ grin” instead of a thug.