After a high-profile murder trial, a Texas jury surprised many on Oct. 1 by convicting Dallas ex-cop Amber Guyger of murder in the off-duty-officer’s shooting of 26-year-old Botham Jean, a native of the Caribbean nation St. Lucia. One day later, the same jury turned around and sentenced Guyger to 10 years in prison, a relatively light sentence in the context of U.S. “criminal justice.”
Jean worked at one of the world’s biggest accounting firms, PricewaterhouseCoopers. He was a religious man who sang at church and mentored young people.
Jean was in the comfort of his own home on Sept. 6, 2018, watching television and eating ice cream when white officer Guyger unlawfully entered his apartment. After getting off duty that day, Guyger returned to the Southside Flats apartments in Cedars neighborhood and entered the wrong apartment on the wrong floor. Guyger lived in unit number 1378 on the third floor but entered unit 1478 on the fourth floor. Failing to notice an entire room full of furniture and wall decorations different from her own, Guyger, somehow believing she was in her own apartment, killed the unarmed Black resident inside within seconds.
One minute later, she texted her former partner, “I f–ed up.”
Going into cover-up mode, the Texas Rangers, who have jurisdiction statewide to investigate police shootings, and the District Attorney’s office decided not to issue an arrest warrant. It wasn’t until after three days of preferential treatment and careful consideration of the terrible optics at play that Guyger was finally arrested and charged (by a department with a decades-long history of police violence) with manslaughter, setting the stage for a closely watched and rare criminal proceeding against a killer cop.
A racist cop and her defense
Guyger and her defense team must have been thinking, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” when they decided to go with the reliable I-feared-for-my-life cop defense, which functions as a virtual license to kill. This time, they would see if it works for off-duty cops too!
And who can blame them. When an officer takes the stand and says “I feared for my life,” usually that’s the end of the story. Those few words work magic when uttered by agents of state violence, so much so that while 900-1,000 people are shot and killed every year by police, only three officers have been convicted of murder and seen their convictions stand since 2005!
Sticking to the script, Guyger concocted a defense story where she was the one in danger, explaining that she mistakenly thought Jean’s apartment was hers, that Jean was a burglar, and that there was no reasonable alternative at the time other than placing two fatal bullet holes in his chest as he sat on his own couch, in his own apartment.
A collection of text messages entered into evidence during the trial revealed Guyger to be an open and verifiable racist who joked with other Dallas cops about the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., proposed using violence against MLK Day parade attendees because the civil rights celebration apparently takes too long, and woefully complained about having to work with Black colleagues.
It comes as no surprise then that Guyger would cling to a defense dripping with white supremacist notions that Black people have no rights that white people are bound to respect. According to the defense presentation, Jean’s right to peacefully reside in his own home and, ultimately, his right to life, were lesser than the right of Amber Guyger to kill with intent based on what was going on in her head after trespassing.
The unlikely conviction
A 12-person jury, five Black, five Latino or Asian, and two white, didn’t buy it. After deliberating for about six hours, they courageously convicted Guyger of murder and not the lesser charge of manslaughter, meaning they determined that no reasonable person would have believed their life to be in danger, and there was an intent to kill.
The decision of the jury shows they did not believe Guyger’s concocted story, full of lies as it was.
After illegally entering Jean’s apartment, Guyger stated that she yelled out, “Let me see your hands,” but neighbors heard no shouts, only shots. Guyger claimed that Jean began walking quickly toward her yelling in an aggressive tone, causing her to fear for her life. The trajectory of the bullets tell a different story. The fatal bullets were shot downward. For Guyger (5’3”) to fire off bullets with a downward trajectory into Jean’s torso, Jean (6’1”) would either have to be sitting or in a defensive posture.
After shooting Jean, Guyger testified that she tried performing “a little CPR.” However, the prosecution showed that even though Jean was bleeding heavily from two gaping chest wounds, Guyger’s uniform was spotless, without a single drop of blood. In the critical moments before first responders arrived, with Jean’s life hanging in the balance, Guyger hadn’t bothered opening up and using the police first-aid bag in her possession at the time, even though it had items designed to control traumatic bleeding. Instead, Guyger was photographed texting outside of Jean’s apartment.
Stripped down to its bare essentials, the picture that comes together is simply one of a white police officer seeing a Black man, automatically assuming he is dangerous, shooting and killing him, and then becoming overtaken with panicked concern for herself rather than concern for saving the life of her victim.
The Jean murder fits squarely into a long pattern of state violence against Black communities, of which police terror is but a single part. One in 1,000 Black men and boys can expect to die as a result of police violence, a new study finds. As stated earlier, virtually zero police officers suffer any repercussions.
So, there was ample precedent to assume that killer-cop Guyger would walk free, especially when Judge Tammy Kemp went out of her way to hand Guyger a last minute get-out-of-jail-free card. Prior to deliberation, Judge Kemp ridiculously instructed the jury that they could consider the “castle doctrine,” part of Texas law that allows someone to use deadly force to defend themself in their own home. Of course, Guyger was not in her own home, but that didn’t stop Judge Kemp from issuing the instruction anyway, thereby changing the law and expanding it to include what Guyger perceived to be her home! Jean’s right not to be killed by an armed intruder in his actual home flew out the window.
To their credit, the jury didn’t go for it.
A controversial sentencing
Guyger’s murder conviction came with a sentencing guideline of 5-99 years. The prosecution recommended nothing less than 28 years, the age Jean would have been had he not been gunned down. In the end, Guyger was sentenced to 10 years and will be eligible for parole in five.
Whatever satisfaction the conviction aroused was severely undermined by a sentence that screamed out implicit racial bias. Countless Black men are doing longer sentences than Guyger for non-violent crimes. A 2013 study by the ACLU found that 3,278 people were serving life sentences without parole for nonviolent offenses like stealing winter coats or selling marijuana, and that 65 percent of them were Black.
That’s why moments after the sentence was announced, community members in the courthouse hallways began angrily chanting, “No justice, no peace!”
The special treatment for Guyger was captured in the stunning moment when the judge left the bench to come give her a hug, shortly after she was convicted of first-degree murder.
The terrible message sent by the sentence wasn’t the only thing on protesters’ minds. The resignation of those that tried shielding Guyger from prosecution and demands of justice for other victims of police murder fueled a nighttime march of around 200 people through downtown Dallas.
Protesters temporarily shut down a busy intersection by forming a circle and linking arms. When Dallas police showed up in riot gear, the people moved back to the courthouse and occupied the jail lobby, continuing to chant all the while. The protest finally made its way back downtown to Dealey Plaza, where one arrest was made, a young woman by the name of Safiya Paul. Paul was a childhood friend of Botham Jean, and like Jean, a native of St. Lucia. She was carrying a St. Lucia flag when witnesses say Dallas police grabbed her, brutally slammed her into the street, and took her away to county jail.
This marathon protest attended by Jean’s childhood friend and its demands to widen the scope of accountability did not grab the corporate news headlines. What did snag major media headlines was the public act of forgiveness by Brandt Jean, younger brother of Botham Jean, toward his brother’s killer.
The Jean family’s forgiveness of Guyger for reasons of religion and personal mourning was instantaneously seized upon by establishment media, prosecutors and judges alike, all tripping over themselves at the sight of Guyger’s tears. They presented the courtroom “forgiveness” spectacle as some sort of instruction to Black people collectively on how to deal with white supremacy. They passed over in silence the brave actions of Safiya Paul, confronting and challenging unjust authority in the streets.
The corporate media message (and preference) was clear: Unconditionally offer forgiveness even when it is not premised on meaningful change and lasting justice. Do not rise up and demand justice.
But no one is falling for it. Any student of history knows that the forces for substantive change emerge from rebellion.