Ex-Florida Commissioner Sentenced to Three Years for Shooting

June 14, 2022 Criminal Defense, News & Announcements

A former City Commissioner in Lakeland has just been sentenced to three years in prison as a result of a 2018 shooting. Michael Dunn, 51, was accused of shooting a man in the store he was working in almost four years ago.

Dunn had originally been charged with second-degree murder for the shooting, but reached a plea agreement with the judge back in March 2022. Dunn was facing up to 17 ½ years in jail for the new charge of manslaughter with a firearm, but on Monday he received a much more lenient sentence of only three years.

We will cover the details of the shooting, Dunn’s charges and initial defenses, and the responses to the sentence.

What was the Incident?

On October 3, 2018, Dunn had been working at Vets Army Navy Surplus, a store in Lakeland that he managed. While on the clock, Christobal Lopez, 51, had attempted to steal a hatchet from the store. Video surveillance showed Lopez grabbing the weapon and trying to hide it underneath his clothes.

Dunn appeared from the back office to stop Lopez. He had already pulled out his Glock pistol to confront Lopez. Lopez made for an escape out the glass front door, but Dunn grabbed him and pulled him back. He then shot Lopez twice in his torso. Lopez died in the store at the scene.

After getting indicted by a grand jury, Dunn was charged with second-degree murder less than a month after Lopez’s death. Dunn had to resign from the Lakeland City Commission, only 10 months after he had been elected.

Dunn was released from jail on a $150,000 bond, and was placed on house arrest until the sentencing took place. Getting charged with second-degree murder with a firearm put Dunn at the risk of facing up to life in prison.

In March, Dunn pled guilty to manslaughter with a firearm. This was in exchange for a lesser sentence, which could have been at most 17 ½ years in prison. Just two weeks before the plea was offered, Dunn’s defense team introduced two defense experts to help their client’s case—a psychological expert and a toxicology expert. Judge Donald Jacobsen rejected both defense experts, and Dunn decided to plead guilty.

Manslaughter with a firearm is a charge that carries no mandatory minimum sentence, although there can be up to 30 years in prison sentenced with the charge. Judge Jacobsen claimed he would impose less of a sentence. The prosecution was looking for 17 ½ years for Dunn, and the defense was asking for less than 10.

Mark O’Mara, one of the defense attorneys for Dunn, gave the following statement about working out the sentencing:

“It’s always a negotiation with the State, so 95% of cases work out with a resolution. 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.”  

Standing his Ground?

Dunn’s defense team was initially pushing to seek immunity under Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, claiming that Dunn had acted in self-defense. The defense argued that Lopez was armed with a hatchet, which could have been used in a dangerous way toward Dunn or others.

Dunn gave his own testimony of the shooting to Judge Jacobsen, a statement lasting about 12 minutes:

“You see the man with the hatchet coming around to you, and staring basically through you—it’s fear. I would almost say, from that point, you’re almost on auto-pilot. I don’t know how to explain it. I remember not having my auditory. I remember things seeming muffled, things seemed [in] slow motion.”

Defense attorney O’Mara continued the push for the Stand Your Ground Law to be applied in the case, arguing that there was no proof in the surveillance video to suggest that Dunn went after Lopez with the immediate intent to shoot him. “This is about as close to self-defense as you can get and not have self-defense,” O’Mara said.

The prosecution argued that Lopez was only trying to leave the store, and was then shot twice in the back. “This was not a situation where Mr. Lopez was provoking any kind of a violent confrontation,” said Assistant State Attorney Paul Wallace. “He simply was trying to get out the door.”

Judge Jacobsen reviewed the surveillance footage from Dunn’s store, saying that he watched it frame by frame to analyze the shooting. After stating that the shooting only took seconds, the judge said, “But a gun was raised and a man was shot in the back as he was exiting a store.”

A large number of people attempted to come to Dunn’s defense after the shooting. Nearly 50 people sent letters to Judge Jacobsen on their friend’s behalf, and almost a dozen testified for Dunn’s character in the courtroom.

Judge Jacobsen’s response was simple: “I am not sitting here judging the character of this man; the soul and heart of this man. I am having to judge the circumstances of the crime.”

On Monday, May 23rd, 2022, Judge Jacobsen sentenced Dunn to three years in prison for the murder of Lopez. The verdict came after four hours of testimonies, and nearly four years after the shooting. Dunn has also been sentenced to ten years of probation and 200 hours of community service.

State Attorney Brian Haas said he feels confident that the plea and the sentencing can now bring closure to Lopez’s family. It will avoid a long, drawn-out process of appeals and emotional distress from going back to court.

Defense attorney O’Mara was satisfied with the judge’s sentence, stating, “I think the Dunn family understands that a life was lost. That tragedy—the Legislature says when you do that and you do that with a gun, we will punish you. I think that three years is understandable, based on the loss of life.”

Manslaughter with a Firearm

Manslaughter is defined under Florida Statute Section 782.07, and is committed in one of three ways:

  • Manslaughter by Act (Voluntary Manslaughter) – This type of manslaughter is when there was an intentional act committed that was neither excusable nor justified which resulted in the death of another individual.
  • Manslaughter by Procurement (Voluntary Manslaughter) – This type of manslaughter is when an individual has persuaded, induced, or encouraged another person to commit an act that has resulted in the death of another individual.
  • Manslaughter by Culpable Negligence (Involuntary Manslaughter) – This type of manslaughter is when an individual has engaged in a conduct that is considered culpably negligent that results in the death of another individual.

If the crime of manslaughter was committed or attempted with a firearm, then the charge is reclassified from a second-degree felony to a first-degree felony. Manslaughter with a firearm or weapon is punishable with up to a $10,000 fine and up to 30 years of prison and 30 years of probation.

If you’d like to read more about manslaughter and its differences from murder, find our blog post here.

Finding a Defense Lawyer in Tallahassee, Florida

Dunn’s case is a good example of a positive outcome from a sentence. Considering he was initially facing up to life in prison, three years is a much lighter sentence. With the help of a skilled defense attorney, you can strategize a defense to prevent you from a hefty sentence, or potentially even get you complete freedom. If you or a loved one have been accused of a crime, make sure you reach out to an experienced Tallahassee defense attorney for help. Don Pumphrey and his team at Pumphrey Law Firm have experience representing clients all across the state of Florida. We understand that it can be intimidating to try and navigate the legal processes, so we promise you won’t have to do it alone. Our team will be with you every step of the way and will strive to provide the best legal assistance. For a free consultation, today call (850) 681-7777 or leave an online message.

Written by Karissa Key

Back to Top