A former city commissioner in Lakeland, Fla., was sentenced Monday to three years in prison after he admitted to fatally shooting a man he suspected of stealing a hatchet from his shop in 2018.
The former commissioner, Michael Dunn, 51, pleaded guilty in March to a charge of manslaughter with a firearm, according to Polk County court records. In addition to the prison term, Polk County Judge Donald G. Jacobsen sentenced Mr. Dunn to 10 years of probation and 200 hours of community service.
In October 2018, Mr. Dunn was working at the Army-Navy surplus store he co-owned in Lakeland, which is about 35 miles east of Tampa, when he saw the man, Christobal Lopez, 50, conceal a hatchet, the Lakeland Police Department said at the time.
Mr. Dunn stopped Mr. Lopez, a transient who had entered the store with his father, and asked him if he was going to pay for the item, the police said. As Mr. Lopez tried to leave the store, Mr. Dunn pulled Mr. Lopez’s sleeve and shot him.
Mr. Lopez died at the scene.
Mr. Dunn’s initial charge of second-degree murder was downgraded to manslaughter after he took the plea deal, according to court records. He resigned from his post as an elected city commissioner a few days after he was indicted in 2018.
At a sentencing hearing on Monday, Mr. Dunn told Judge Jacobsen that his reaction to seeing Mr. Lopez take the hatchet was “based on fear,” and that he was “almost in autopilot.” He also apologized to Mr. Lopez’s family.
“If I had a time machine, that’s what I would want: To have never seen Mr. Lopez,” Mr. Dunn said.
Mark O’Mara, a lawyer representing Mr. Dunn, said during the hearing that his client’s decision to shoot Mr. Lopez “was not well thought-out, but also is not indicative of anger or animosity.”
In March 2021, Brian Haas, the state attorney for the 10th Judicial Circuit, rejected Mr. Dunn’s claim of self-defense. If Mr. Dunn’s claim had been accepted, he would have been protected by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which makes it challenging to prosecute people who maintain that they felt threatened and acted to protect themselves.
Paul Wallace, an assistant state attorney, said at the hearing that the prosecutors believed Mr. Lopez was not trying to get into a violent confrontation.
“The vast majority of shopkeepers do not attempt to use this type of intervention,” Mr. Wallace said.
At the hearing, the prosecutors said that Mr. Dunn had confronted multiple shoplifters in his store, including someone he wrestled with who had a gun.
The prosecutors had asked Judge Jacobsen for a 17-and-a-half year sentence, while Mr. Dunn’s lawyers had requested a 3-and-a-half-year sentence of “community control,” under which he could serve his sentence at home instead of in prison.
Mr. Dunn’s aunt, who was identified as M. Rodriguez, testified at the hearing that, after the shooting, Mr. Lopez’s father was never the same.
“He talked because he had to talk, he walked because he had to walk, but we would see him and it wasn’t him,” she said.
When Mr. Dunn was 19, he accidentally shot a man while he was practicing his aim with a pistol at his home, according to The Lakeland Ledger, a local newspaper. The man survived, and the Lakeland police called the shooting accidental and cleared Mr. Dunn of any wrongdoing.
In July 2018, Mr. Dunn hosted a rally at his store to counter a nearby March for Our Lives rally, which called for action against gun violence after 17 people were shot and killed at a South Florida high school, according to The Tampa Bay Times.