An Officer’s Conviction Flips the Police Shooting Script

Fired Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger listens as her attorneys make arguments during her murder trial, Monday, Sept. 23, 2019, in Dallas. Guyger went on trial in the shooting death of a black neighbor as attorneys sparred over whether the officer was distracted by a phone call when she mistook the neighbor's apartment for her own and the victim for an intruder.

Source Tom Fox/AP

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Because this story had the ultimate combination of race, gender, guns and cops.

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Police violence has become a troublingly common narrative to the American public in recent years. On Tuesday, a Dallas jury flipped the usual ending.

Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, 31, was found guilty of murder in a case that’s captured the gaze of activists nationwide. While the rising debate around police shootings since Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, has centered on the safety of Black men in public, this one raised new questions about the safety of citizens in their own homes.

Guyger, who is White, was charged with killing Botham Shem Jean, who lived one floor above her unit in their apartment complex, while she was off-duty. Guyger has said she mistakenly thought she had entered her own apartment and believed she saw an intruder, shooting him in self-defense.

Jean, a 26-year-old accountant from the island nation of St. Lucia, was eating vanilla ice cream and watching television in his apartment on the night he was shot in the chest. Guyger called 911, and Jean died soon after in the hospital. In the following days, the incident sparked outcry from protesters, who highlighted this as another example of strained relations between Dallas police and people of color. “We’re still dealing in an America where Black people are being killed in some of the most arbitrary ways: Driving while Black, walking while Black — and now, we have to add living while Black,” said Lee Merritt, a civil rights lawyer representing the Jean family, after the shooting.

This type of accountability is very rare.

Ron Kaye, civil rights attorney in Southern California

Neither side has disputed that Guyger, a four-year Dallas Police Department veteran, killed Jean. Guyger contended it was all an accident: She entered the wrong unit as the result of confused exhaustion after a long day. As a police officer, she feared for her life when she saw someone she thought to be a burglar, her argument goes. 

However, a medical examiner testified that the bullet’s trajectory was downward, which suggests Jean was in a crouched or seated position. And Jean’s family and advocates have suggested Guyger received preferential treatment as a police officer. Initially facing charges of manslaughter rather than murder, Guyger was taken into police custody three days after the shooting and remained free on bond. The police department fired her weeks later after saying she could not be terminated right away. 

 

There are other muddying factors. For one, Guyger sent text messages to her partner on the police force — who also was her romantic partner — after the shooting when she was on the phone with a 911 dispatcher. The messages read: “I need you … hurry” and “I fucked up.” Audio of this phone call was leaked in April to a local TV station in which Guyger can be heard saying: “I’m going to lose my job. I thought it was my apartment.” And during the trial, prosecutors revealed sexually explicit messages between Guyger and her partner just before the shooting, to undermine her claims of fatigue.

Irresistible to the media and drawing the attention of advocates nationwide, the case hit all the hot buttons of race, gender, guns and cops. At one point, Guyger’s lawyers unsuccessfully argued that the case should be moved from Dallas to elsewhere in North Texas to ensure a fair trial. Critics noted that would also mean a Whiter jury, but her attorneys said it was necessary given the media frenzy. “This coverage has ranged from the absurd like what [Guyger] wore to a court-setting to outrageous like falsehoods about [Guyger] being a racist and comparisons of the incident to ‘ … a form of lynching,’” her attorneys wrote. The trial also raised questions about sexism, given prosecutors’ focus on Guyger’s personal life.

And then there was Texas’ controversial Castle Doctrine, which allows the use of deadly force when there’s an intruder on your property. Guyger said she thought Jean was an intruder, even though it was his own castle. In the end, it didn’t fly, to the surprise of many.

“Officers are given great leeway to use deadly force as long as they provide some justification for their conduct,” says Ron Kaye, a civil rights attorney in Southern California. Whether on- or off-duty, “if they’re a sworn officer and they can articulate that they had fear for their life — regardless of whether it actually was corroborated or substantiated by any other circumstantial evidence or direct evidence. This type of accountability is very rare.” 

So beyond Guyger getting somewhere between 5 and 99 years in prison, to be decided by the jury in the coming days, what does it all mean? 

“It’s a positive sign,” Kaye says. “There’s no question that the power of the community, the power of the [Black Lives Matter] movement, the unequivocal history of African American men being killed in the prime of their life for nothing — with no repercussions for law enforcement — had an impact.” 

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