The Amber Guyger verdict is in, and the former Dallas cop who killed an unarmed black man – her neighbor – in his own home was found guilty of murder. Jurors rejected a lesser charge of manslaughter. She faces between five and 99 years in prison.
The facts of this case are as stunning as the verdict (I, for one, was not expecting a white police officer to be convicted on the more serious charge for killing a black man, however bizarre the circumstances). In September 2018, Guyger walked into the home of 26-year-old Botham Jean and shot him to death. Guyger says she was distracted, believed the apartment was hers, and thought Jean was an intruder. Jean, an accountant, was having a quiet night at home, and had just prepared himself a bowl of ice cream.
The case touched a raw nerve in a country where a number of high-profile cases have ended with police officers either acquitted, not charged, or having charges dropped after killing unarmed black civilians. In most of those cases, the killings were in the line of duty, and the officers typically offered some reason: the dead person looked like he had a weapon, or he menaced an officer, or he resisted arrest. The facts of this case were even more striking. Jean was also unarmed, and he was at home alone, minding his own business, when a police officer walked in his front door and murdered him.
Even more egregious: Her defense team had the nerve to claim that Texas’ so-called “castle doctrine,” which is similar to the “stand your ground” laws elsewhere, applied to Guyger. That is, since she believed the home was hers – her “castle” – she was justified in shooting a person she believed to be an intruder.
The good news is that this offensive defense didn’t work. This was correct. But this case should push us to examine the soundness of such legal defenses. Even applied more rationally – like to one’s actual own home – stand your ground places no duty on the threatened resident to retreat or to try to preserve human life. It assumes that a break-in merits a personally administered death sentence.
Guyger’s case illustrates just how barbaric stand your ground laws are. As a police officer, she’s trained to use a gun – and yet she intentionally shot to kill (and succeeded). Even if it had been her apartment, is that the desired outcome?
The facts of the case also call into question Guyger’s own professed anguish over her actions. She testified, weeping: “I ask God for forgiveness and I hate myself every single day.” No doubt she is suffering – being on trial for murder is never good. But her claims that she wishes Jean had been the one with the gun ring hollow when we know that she failed to take “cover and concealment” action when she heard someone in the apartment she believed was hers.
Had she left, instead of drawing her gun, Botham Jean might be alive, the prosecutor pointed out. He also reminded Guyger that she took an 8-hour de-escalation training course five months before the shooting, and asked her what she took from the class. “I don’t remember,” she replied.
Guyger did little to provide life-sustaining aid to Jean, despite her training. We know she says she is asking God for forgiveness and she “feel(s) like a piece of crap. … I hate that I have to live with this every single day of my life” – but she does not believe she deserves criminal penalties.
The question now is how Guyger will be sentenced. Her lawyers are correct that the law has to allow people to make mistakes. But this wasn’t a simple error in judgment. This was an inexplicable and deadly act, and she did little in its aftermath to stem the damage – to at least try to save her victim’s life.
What this guilty verdict may at least show is there are some lines even white police officers can’t cross when killing unarmed black people.
Of course: it’s complicated. The prosecution in this case read text messages between Guyger and her married male partner, with whom she had had an affair, ostensibly to show that she was distracted and walked into Jean’s apartment accidentally, but more effectively tarring her as a homewrecker.
Would the death of an innocent black man at the hands of an overzealous, trigger-happy cop been enough for a conviction if the jury hadn’t seen Guyger through the lens of a particularly objectionable woman? We can’t know. If the jury harbored personal dislike of Guyger over her affair with a married man, and this helped tip the scales (and it wouldn’t be the first time such a thing has happened) – it would indeed be a sad statement on the value so many Americans place on black lives.