Dallas County jurors made a powerful statement Tuesday with their decision to convict former police officer Amber Guyger of murder.
Plenty of people will lament that Guyger was harshly punished for a terrible mistake, the shooting of Botham Jean in his own home when she thought it was hers. But with their verdict, the jurors said that some mistakes are so egregious, the circumstances can’t excuse them much at all.
This case is an illustration of why we have jury trials. Though the prosecution and defense disagreed over some key facts, the trial turned on whether Guyger’s actions were reasonable under the circumstances of the night of Sept. 6, 2018.
It can’t have been easy for the jurors. It’s far from clear-cut to what extent Guyger should have known she was in the wrong apartment. Dallas County prosecutors noted several clues, including Jean’s distinctive red doormat and the fact that a light indicating her key didn’t match.
It was apparently a common mistake at the South Side Flats, though. Fifteen percent of residents interviewed told Texas Rangers they’d gone to the wrong floor and tried to enter an apartment that wasn’t theirs. Most who made the mistake did so on the very floors where Guyger and Jean lived.
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Guyger, a graduate of Arlington’s Sam Houston High, testified that once she fired, she intended to kill Jean. That may have been a key factor in the murder conviction, though jurors were instructed to deliberate whether she was acting in self-defense and whether she had made a mistake in assessing the facts.
The prosecution showed at various points how different choices on Guyger’s part could have prevented tragedy. She could have retreated and called for help; she could have done more to try to treat his wounds; she could have used a taser instead of her gun; she could have turned on the lights.
It was a tough call because Guyger clearly thought she was entering her own home. She was acting as a woman facing a threat but also as a police officer trained in how to respond to such threats.
Guyger contends that she told Jean “show me your hands” and only fired when he did not comply. Prosecutors noted that no witness heard her, and they contend she didn’t say it. Jean held no weapon or anything that could have been perceived as one.
In their punishment decision yet to come, jurors will take into account some of the mitigating factors. Guyger deserves a long sentence, but nothing approaching the maximum of 99 years.
The nation’s current turmoil over race and policing weighed heavily on this case. Members of the community saw a police officer given special treatment even though she killed a black man in his own home.
Some feared that anything less than a murder conviction would be another message that for those who wear a badge, there are lesser consequences for harming minorities -- and perhaps no consequences at all. They have seen too many juries give too many officers a pass.
But the circumstances here were so unusual that we should refrain from applying the case too broadly. Guyger’s mistakes were particular to the circumstances of the evening.
And we must not lose sight of the human tragedy here. By all accounts, Botham Jean was an exceptional person, a beloved son and a faithful servant of his church. He was gunned down at the age of 26 in his own home, and he did nothing whatsoever to deserve it.
His death was entirely Guyger’s fault, and she should pay a serious price for that. With a murder conviction, the jury declared that she will.