I thought she was going to get away with it.
Quite honestly, as news of another deadly police-involved shooting began circulating on social media last September, I wondered if there would be any accounting in the justice system for the fatal shooting of Botham Jean. The 26-year-old accountant was unarmed, sitting in his living room watching television with a bowl of vanilla ice crea- when Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger, 31, burst in and began firing.
Surely, I believed, Dallas police and county prosecutors would find a way to explain it all away. I expected a press conference, during which they would attempt to defend each and every one of Guyger’s actions. They would call Jean’s death an unfortunate tragedy and commit themselves to increased officer training. They would, I reasoned, find a way to somehow place the blame on an unarmed black man. If history is any guide, the off-duty officer was more likely to be placed on paid administrative leave and returned to the department after a cursory investigation than she was to face a jury of her peers.
And indeed, it took several days before the county prosecutor charged her—with manslaughter. It took a grand jury to do what prosecutors failed to do. They delivered a murder indictment.
And Tuesday, a jury convicted her on that charge, and she now faces a sentence of up to 99 years.
That so many people are surprised by this outcome, given the facts of the case, speaks volumes about a criminal justice system that routinely discriminates based on race and class. And one in which few officers are ever charged in fatal shootings, let alone convicted.
The statistics tell us that the weight of responsibility still rests with black lives. The conviction today offers a ray of hope, though I still wonder what might have come of this case had Jean been a 17-year-old high school drop-out, a middle aged mechanic, or even a drug-addled 30-something with a string of prior offenses. I wonder what would have become of Guyger had she killed someone we deemed a less-than-perfect victim. What if, in an open carry state, Jean had been armed?
What if the roles were reversed, as she so tearfully suggested in her testimony? What if a black man had killed a white police officer?
For her part, Guyger claimed it was an accident—that she mistook Jean’s apartment for her own. The now former cop testified that she was “scared to death” when she saw the door “cracked open” and realized there was someone inside. She thought she was confronting a burglar, Guyger told investigators. She claimed that she repeatedly ordered him to show his hands, as she pushed the unlocked door open, but her neighbors testified that they heard nothing.
Guyger entered that apartment with over a thousand hours of training, including an 8-hour course that focused on de-escalation tactics. But, she failed to explain why she opened the door and presumably placed herself in harm’s way, in defiance of that training. A few moments more and she would have realized she was standing at the wrong door. She would have noticed the red circular door mat and the address on the wall.
Admittedly, despite the myriad holes in her story, I still wanted to believe her. I wanted to be able to trust the word of a police officer, to believe she had acted reasonably under the circumstances. I wanted to trust her tears on the witness stand. I wanted to believe that she had acted in accordance with her training and that Jean’s race was not a factor in his senseless death. I tried to see the incident unfolding from her perspective. I wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt.
But I kept coming back to a single question: Why did she let him die?
I can only imagine the confusion and fear that must have consumed him. As Jean lay in a pool of blood, with two gunshot wounds to his chest, Guyger failed to render aid of any kind. She never tried to staunch his bleeding or make any attempt to resuscitate him, even though she had combat gauze in her backpack. Even as she realized her mistake, she never once tried to comfort him in those last moments. She did not beg him to hang on or assure him that help was on the way. She was more worried, it seems, about her own life than the one slipping away before her eyes.
Jean was still clinging to life when responding units arrived. He could be heard grunting, one officer testified, as he performed CPR.
The defense claimed Guyger was standing her ground and pinned their arguments to what is known as the “castle doctrine.” On the witness stand, she claimed Jean was coming towards her and that she shot him in self-defense. Leaving aside the fact that she did not mention this to the 911 operator or any of the responding officers, it was not Guyger’s ground to stand and she certainly wasn’t in her own castle. Save for her own irrational fears, there was simply no attack or threat from which she was trying to defend herself. She never told him she was sorry. The only life she wanted to save was her own.
While she was on the phone with dispatchers after shooting Jean, she texted her lover, also a Dallas police officer: “Hurry, I need you. I fucked up.”
Guyger’s conviction is a major step forward, but the jury decision is not and will never be justice. Justice would mean Jean woke this morning, showered and dressed for work. It means that he would get home for Thanksgiving with his family and ring in the New Year with his friends. Justice can only mean that Botham Jean would still be alive.
I still want to believe that we can be better, that there will come a day when racial and class divides do not pervade our criminal justice system. I want to believe that the progress ushered forward by human rights activists will continue advancing until it reaches every community—from sea to shining sea. I want to believe that one day the verdict 12 jurors delivered on Dallas Tuesday won’t be an anomaly but the way we all expect our justice system to work.