The former Dallas police officer who killed her unarmed black neighbor in his apartment was found guilty of murder Tuesday — a rare conviction in a high-profile police shooting and a verdict that civil rights activists heralded as a victory for police accountability.
Amber Guyger said she thought she was entering her own unit, one floor below, when she encountered 26-year-old Botham Jean last year and mistook him for a burglar., Guyger, an off-duty officer who had just finished a long shift, fired two shots at Jean, who was watching TV and eating ice cream.
jury rejected Guyger’s self-defense claim in the seven-day trial.
“This is a huge victory not only for the family of Botham Jean but, as his mother told me a moment ago, this is a victory for black people in America,” civil rights lawyer Lee Merritt said after the verdict was returned. “It’s a signal that the tide is going to change here; police officers are going to be held accountable for their actions and we believe that will change policing culture all over the world.”
Guyger faces a sentence of five years to life in prison, without the possibility of probation. The sentencing phase of the trial will continue on Wednesday.
The shooting, which occurred the evening of Sept. 6, 2018, touched off days of protests in Dallas and demands for police reform. Many saw it as part of a pattern of police wielding deadly force disproportionately against people of color.
But the unusual facts of the case made it unique among fatal shootings involving police, most of which are never even prosecuted.
Guyger, who is white, offered a tearful defense and repeated apologies on the stand Friday.
“I shot an innocent man,” she said during her testimony, the first time the public had heard from her since the shooting.
Guyger’s lawyers have said the 31-year-old, who was fired from the police force shortly after she killed Jean, was exhausted and scared when she heard someone inside the unit she thought was her own. She opened the door, saw a “silhouette figure” in the dark apartment and feared for her life, they said.
Guyger said Jean walked toward her after she asked to see his hands. She fired two shots. By her own admission, she was shooting to kill.
But because she believed she was in her own home, her legal team argued, she was within her rights, acting in self-defense. It was “a series of horrible mistakes,” the lawyers said — “awful and tragic, but innocent.”
Dallas County District Court Judge Tammy Kemp ruled Monday that the jury could consider the “castle doctrine,” a controversial law that says your home is your castle and you have a right to defend it.
On Tuesday, lawyers for the Jean family joined the chorus of critics, saying it was “asinine” for the doctrine to go before the jury. Jean family attorney Benjamin Crump compared it to the controversial stand-your-ground law, describing both as attempts to “come up with justification to kill an unarmed black person.”
The prosecution cast Guyger as careless and negligent — armed, distracted and too quick to pull the trigger. Prosecutors called her defense “garbage” and “absurd.”
They said a reasonable person would have noticed the illuminated apartment numbers that read 1478, rather than 1378, and would have seen Jean’s red doormat. She wasn’t paying attention, prosecutors said, because she was too caught up in a sexually explicit conversation she was having with her partner on the police force.
“I mean, my God,” said Jason Fine, the Dallas County Assistant District Attorney. “This is crazy.”
Prosecutors also questioned why Guyger opened the door when she suspected someone was inside, arguing that police training teaches officers confronting a burglar to take cover and call for backup.
“For Amber Guyger, Mr. Jean was dead before that door ever opened,” said Jason Hermus, the lead prosecutor.AD
Jurors had to decide whether Guyger was guilty or not guilty of murder or manslaughter.
During the first part of the sentencing phase on Tuesday, Jean’s mother, Allison Jean, told the jury how her son, a middle child, brought together his brother, his sister and the rest of the family. He was the glue, she said.
“My life has not been the same,” Allison Jean said. “It’s just been like a roller coaster. I cannot sleep. I cannot eat. It’s just been the most terrible time for me.”
The state also sought to portray Guyger as a prejudiced person, pointing to her private correspondence and social media posts. In one text message to another officer, she said she was working with several black officers.
“Not racist but just have a different way of working and it shows,” one message read.
Guyger is expected to take the stand for a second time when sentencing resumes.
As Jean’s family and their supporters celebrated the ruling in the hallway outside the courtroom, Merritt and fellow attorney Benjamin Crump repeated the names of other unarmed black people whose killers — most of them members of law enforcement — hadn’t faced legal consequences: Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and Antwon Rose among them.
“For so many unarmed black and brown human beings all across America,” Crump said, “this verdict today is for them.”
After the verdict was returned, the Jean family attorneys said the unique facts of this case left little doubt the jury would find her guilty. Jean was in his own home, unarmed, committing no crime and not acting aggressively, they said.
Jean was also, Crump said, “near-perfect” — college-educated and a certified public accountant working for one of the world’s most prestigious firms. But justice should be served equally to everyone, no matter their race, class or education, he said.AD
“This jury had to make history in America today, because Botham was the best that we had to offer,” Crump said. “It shouldn’t take all of that for unarmed black and brown people in America to get justice.”