Former Lakeland City Commissioner Michael Dunn is facing up to 17½ years in prison after pleading guilty today to a reduced charge of manslaughter with a firearm in the 2018 shooting death of a suspected shoplifter at the Lakeland store Dunn was managing.

Dunn, 51, made no comments during the eight-minute hearing, only answering questions by Circuit Judge Donald Jacobsen that affirmed his plea was being given voluntarily.

Dunn was scheduled to stand trial beginning Monday on allegations of second-degree murder with a firearm, with which he had been charged. Had he been convicted, Dunn would have faced up to life in prison.

The plea agreement with prosecutors shows a minimum prison sentence of 10.3 years, in accordance with state sentencing guidelines, but leaves the sentence up to Jacobsen’s discretion.

On Friday, Jacobsen postponed sentencing to May 23, after a pre-sentence investigation is completed and lawyers hold an evidentiary hearing to present testimony supporting leniency or a stricter sentence. No date has been set for that daylong hearing.

During today's brief hearing, he ruled that Dunn could remain free on the $150,000 bond he had posted following his 2018 arrest.

In October 2018, a Polk County grand jury indicted Dunn in the Oct. 3 shooting death of Cristóbal Lopez, 50, a homeless veteran. According to Lakeland police, Lopez had slipped a hatchet down the front of his pants at the Vets Army Navy Surplus store in Lakeland, which Dunn managed.

Dunn was armed with a Glock pistol when he confronted Lopez in the store, and when Lopez left out the front door, Dunn shot him twice in the torso. Lopez died within minutes just outside the front door. The shooting was captured on the store’s surveillance cameras.

Michael Dunn plea hearing
A screen shot from video of this morning's hearing:. Dunn is at the far left. At his podium are his attorneys, Mark O'Meara of Orlando and Rusty Franklin of Lakeland. Assistant State Attorney Paul Wallace stands at the other podium.

Dunn’s lawyers had challenged the allegations under the state’s “stand your ground” law, arguing that he was defending himself. But a year ago today, Jacobsen denied Dunn’s motion to dismiss the charge, stating there was no evidence that Lopez had raised the hatchet to threaten Dunn.

“(Dunn) knew full well that (Lopez) had a hatchet concealed in his pants and confronted him,” Jacobsen wrote in his March 2021 ruling. “Upon being confronted, (Lopez) attempted to pay for the hatchet, but apparently realizing the police were still going to be called, attempted to leave.

“(Dunn) then initiated contact with (Lopez,) and it does not appear in any of the videos that (Lopez) raised the hatchet in any particularly threatening manner towards (Dunn.)”

State Attorney Brian Haas said Friday that Dunn’s lawyers had told prosecutors earlier this week that he was considering a guilty plea.

“The guilty 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,” he said in a prepared statement.

Dunn had served on the Lakeland City Commission about 10 months when the shooting occured, having defeated the late Larry Durrence in December 2017. Dunn resigned from the commission four days after he was charged in the shooting.

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Suzie Schottelkotte has been a journalist in Polk County since 1981, having worked for The Tampa Tribune and The Ledger. She is currently a free-lance reporter for Jazbablog.

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