Did The Guyger Jury Get It Right?
Did The Guyger Jury Get It Right?
One year ago, Amber Guyger walked into a Dallas apartment and killed a man. Under most circumstances, there might have been a story in the second section of the Dallas Morning News and possibly a passing mention of it nationwide as part of the gun control debate. What made this case different is the fact Guyger was a member of the Dallas Police Department at the time. She claimed she believed she’d entered her own apartment and the victim, Botham Jean, had broken in. Yesterday, a Dallas County jury found Guyger guilty of murder and now the armchair quarterbacking begins.
On September 6, 2018, Amber Guyger returned to the apartment complex where she lived. She’d just come off a long shift. She rode the elevator up to what she claimed she believed was her own floor in the complex. A few moments later, she entered an apartment and saw a man inside. She pulled her gun, told him to put his hands up. According to her, he failed to do so and she fired, killing 28-year-old Bothan Jean.
That shot set the city on edge as everyone waited to see what would happen next.
Guyger had not entered her apartment. Instead, she entered Jean’s apartment and killed a young man who was devoted to his faith and his community. It was a story no one wanted to read: white cop shoots innocent black man. It was also one we have seen all too often. But was this one different?
DPD acted quickly. Not just in their response to Guyger’s call that she’d shot someone, but in the way the investigation was handled. The Texas Rangers were called in to take charge. DPD took a backseat. As it should have in such a consideration.
Amid the protests and debates between the candidates running for District Attorney about what should happen to Guyger, the Rangers continued their investigation. It didn’t take long before they presented their case to the DA’s Office. The case went to the grand jury and an indictment against Guyger for manslaughter was handed down.
And the political rhetoric increased as did the demands for justice for Jean.
In Texas, there are four basic crimes a person can be charged with when another person dies.
Capital murder is the most serious and can be charged if when the victim is a member of law enforcement or a firefighter. It also occurs if the victim is killed during the course of committing certain felonies (like kidnapping or arson) or if done for remuneration.
Murder is the next “level”. A person commits murder, a first degree felony, if he
(1) intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual;
(2) intends to cause serious bodily injury and commits an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual; or
(3) commits or attempts to commit a felony, other than manslaughter, and in the course of and in furtherance of the commission or attempt, or in immediate flight from the commission or attempt, he commits or attempts to commit an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual.”
Manslaughter is a second degree felony. A person is guilty of this offense if he “recklessly” uses the death of another person.
Criminally negligent homicide is the least serious offense and doesn’t really come into play under the facts of the case.
That was the question from the very beginning. There has never been any real debate within the legal community, or the Dallas community-at-large, that Guyger should have been charged with something. She clearly was in the wrong. She did enter Jean’s apartment and she did pull her gun and shoot him. But what crime should she have been charged with?
At the time the Rangers presented their evidence to the DA’s Office and it, in turn, presented it to the grand jury, Guyger was indicted for manslaughter. As the public, but not the jury, learned during the trial, this is because the Rangers did not believe there was adequate evidence to show Guyger had the requisite intent to prove murder.
That became a major point in the DA’s race, with former judge John Creuzot campaigning on a platform that including re-indicting Guyger on the higher charge of murder. Creuzot won and he followed through with his promise.
In a trial that didn’t take as long as predicted and after only five hours of deliberation, the jury found Amber Guyger guilty of murder. The sentencing phase continues today. But once the sentence, which can be as little as five years to as many as 99 years in prison, is handed down, the appeals process will begin. And there appears to be more than enough for the appellate court to seriously consider reversing the verdict.
Possible appeals points will most likely include the failure of the judge in the trial to grant the defense’s motion for a change of venue. The prosecution did a good job of building a record during voir dire that the jury pool had not been polluted by pre-trial publicity. However, there is no denying the amount of media coverage the events leading up to the trial garnered. Nor is there any denying that much of the media coverage was slanted against Guyger. . .in other words, there was no presumption of innocence in much of the coverage.
Then there is the fact that John Creuzot, the elected DA and former judge, violated the gag order before the trial began. The defense asked for a mistrial and the judge denied the request. But she could not hide her reaction when she learned of the possibility the DA had spoken to the media about the trial, in clear violation of her orders.
Priceless reaction from Dallas County District Court Judge Tammy Kemp to hearing that the Dallas County DA gave a TV interview on the eve of the Amber Guyger murder trial despite a strict gag order on all parties not to speak about the case. pic.twitter.com/g4TjMVcG4S
— J.D. Miles (@jdmiles11) September 23, 2019
Then there was the testimony from Sgt. David Armstrong, one of the Texas Rangers who investigated Jean’s death. According to Armstrong, “I don’t believe that (the shooting) was reckless or criminally negligent based on the totality of the investigation and the circumstances and facts.” However, the jury never heard this testimony because Judge Kemp ruled to keep it out. Should the jury not have been given the chance to hear it and weigh it against the rest of the evidence? That will be a question Guyger’s attorneys should be up on appeal.
The one question I have for the defense team is not why they put Guyger on the stand. They had to. It is why she wasn’t prepared better for her testimony. Until the State began its cross-examination, there was little to no evidence of intent. With this one simple exchange, she gave the jury enough to find her guilty of the charged offense:
When you aimed and pulled the trigger at Mr. Jean — shooting him in center mass right where you are trained — you intended to kill Mr. Jean?” he asked.
“I did,” she said.
From that point on, it didn’t matter that she testified she was scared. It didn’t matter that she thought she was in her own apartment. She gave them someone to blame in this tragedy and we always want to blame someone when another person dies unnecessarily. Add to that she could have withdrawn prior to shooting Jean and called for backup and didn’t and, well, her testimony worked against her.
But will it be enough to uphold the verdict on appeal?
No one can fault Jean’s family for feeling relief and even a sense of joy at the verdict. But there is also no denying the case has been political from the very beginning. From the shouts of “Black lives matter” in the corridor outside the courtroom after the verdict was read back to Creuzot campaign platform, Jean’s death became more about the politics of the situation than the man whose life was lost.
Even now, the media is playing this up for all its worth. The Dallas paper ran an editorial shortly after the verdict was announced, proclaiming how this signals a “shift” in how juries view police officers. The problem is this case is no longer an anomaly, at least not in Dallas. The previous District Attorneys and juries haven’t hesitated over recent years to charge and convict police officers for wrongdoing. But we aren’t hearing about that in the face of the Guyger trial.
This case isn’t going away any time soon, no matter what sentence the jury hands down. Guyger will appeal and she should. Not because she was found guilty, but because the case appears to have too many errors to ignore.
Should Guyger have been convicted? Yes. She killed an unarmed man. But is she guilty of murder as defined by Texas statute? That’s trickier. I’m still not convinced. I do believe she acted not only recklessly but foolishly. I’m also not sure someone else in her shoes wouldn’t have done the same thing. That is why I think the jury should have heard all the testimony and been able to form their own opinions based on it.
In the end, it will be up to the appellate courts and possibly a new trial. If that is the case, the only victims will be the Jean family and Dallas County taxpayers. Now we can only wait and see. Will the verdict and punishment stand? If not, will the DA’s Office offer Guyger a plea or will they take her to trial again? Or will they simply hope the public has forgotten about the trial and let it slip into nothingness, never refiling charges and thus making Botham Jean’s death an even bigger tragedy than it already is?
The jury returned a sentence of 10 years in prison after deliberating only a few hours today. She could have been sentenced between five and 99 years.
Featured image: Officer Amber Guyger booking photo provided by Kaufman County Sheriff”s Office [Handout/Kaufman County Sheriff”s Office] November 2018.