How to Look Differently at a Tragic Death — and the Officer Found Guilty of Murder
Last week, Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was sentenced to a decade in prison for the murder of Botham Jean.
The sentence was a disturbing turn of events. For some, Botham’s murder was another killing in a string of inexplicable police shootings of unarmed black men. For others, it was an innocent yet horrific mistake that cost a young officer her career and her freedom.
Caught between the vitriolic forces of those clamoring for justice for Jean and those casting Guyger as a victim of circumstances were equally distraught observers torn between these two compelling narratives.
I struggled with this case from the initial news flash on Sept. 6, 2018, that detailed how Officer Guyger drove home after her shift and parked her car in a garage a floor above her apartment. She then mistakenly ventured into Jean’s apartment through the unlocked door and, thinking she had encountered an intruder in her home, drew her weapon and shot twice to kill.
Jean had been leisurely sitting on the couch, eating ice cream, and watching television minutes before he died. Eventually, Guyger was arrested, indicted, and stood before a jury of her peers.
Guyger’s text messages suggesting a potential racial bias and other texts revealing indelicate comments about her eagerness to shoot people surfaced during the trial. Her texts raised vital and inevitable questions: Would she have been so quick to pull the trigger if the presumed intruder had been white?
Why didn’t she back out of the door and call for help on her police radio? Police headquarters was just blocks away from her apartment?
After a few hours of deliberations, the jury unanimously found Guyger, 31, guilty of murder, surprising many spectators who thought the officer would be convicted of a lesser charge of manslaughter, if at all.
Her jurors, meticulously chosen to reflect the diversity of the community, then weighed how much time — from a minimum of 5 to a maximum of 99 years – Guyger should spend behind bars.
They quickly settled on ten years, setting off another round of dueling narratives, with critics saying she got off too easy, and others declaring the punishment too harsh.
Jean loved his family, and they loved him. The PricewaterhouseCoopers accountant was a kind, musically talented, energetic soul, who tended to put family, friends, and colleagues at ease, according to multiple testimonies.
The jurors seemed to channel Jean’s generous and merciful spirit when meting out punishment for his killer.
That spirit extended to Jean’s younger brother, Brandt Jean, whose stunning act of forgiveness left not a dry eye in the courtroom when he stopped to hug Guyger while making his victim impact statement. Even the presiding judge was brought to tears.
For those prone to rush to judgment or to demand an eye for an eye, Brandt Jean’s poise and compassion was halting and humbling.
Watch the video of Botham Jean’s 18-year-old brother delivering the victim impact statement to the court and Amber Guyger. It offers another way to parse this tragedy, one that demands soul-searching nuance and nimble grace.
For a moment, at least, all the vitriol gave way to kindness and forgiveness — and we were forced to reconcile our cries for justice with the tears induced by a young man’s unflinching grace.
From the darkness of a double tragedy shines a ray of humanity and the hope that neither side will need to declare victory or defeat.
What can you do?
• Keep an open mind until you are able to review all the facts and perspectives.
• Pay attention to sentencing disparities, and voice your concerns to those in power, from local police and elected officials to state and national representatives.
• Understand the vital importance of a “jury of your peers.” Samuel R. Sommers, a Tufts University professor who has studied jury diversity., put it this way: “An all-white jury is more likely to convict a black defendant.”
“Race and ethnicity influence our perceptions and judgment all the time in our daily lives,” Sommers said. “Nothing makes those biases disappear when we enter a jury room.”
• Be sure you are registered to vote and do not shirk your responsibility to perform jury duty when called. Of the 4,000 jury summonses sent out for the Guyger trial, only 500-600 were expected to show up.
• Demand accountability. To wit: Dallas Police Chief Renee Hall launched an internal affairs investigation to determine why the dash cam was obstructed when Amber Guyger was transported to jail, and how the crime scene apparently was corrupted after Jean was shot.