Last September, a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man in his own flat. That much is settled.
But nearly every other facet Amber Guyger’s murder trial for the killing of Botham Jean stays hidden in controversy as opening statements in the event are set to begin Monday.
For many, the shooting was a tragic accident with conditions that could only be described as “very unique.” Others put it in pattern of white officers killing black guys they say, points to systemic problems in American policing.
A jury will ultimately have to reach consensus on whether Guyger committed murder, a lesser crime or no offense in any way. On the eve of trial, one of the only points of agreement about her situation in Dallas is that it has the potential to profoundly impact the relationship between citizens and police.
Dr. Brian Williams, the former head of the town’s police oversight board, called the trial a “flashpoint” that could significantly bolster or profoundly damage public confidence in the authorities.
“This is an opportunity for Dallas to show that there is a way of handling these complicated and controversial issues of police use of force against minority citizens in a way that is fair and transparent and assures accountability for law enforcement,” Williams explained.
Guyger, 31, was off duty but still in uniform when she shot Jean. She told investigators that after a 15-hour shift she whined Jean’s apartment with her own, which was directly below his, and mistook the 26-year-old accountant in the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia for a burglar.
Guyger stated she parked on the fourth floor of her apartment complex’s garage rather than the next floor, where she lived — and found that the flat’s door ajar, according to an affidavit.
Three days after the shooting, Guyger was arrested for manslaughter. She was then fired from the Dallas police department and charged by a grand jury .
Jean’s family and other critics have questioned why Guyger wasn’t taken into custody immediately after the shooting and if race factored into her use of deadly force. In January, a judge issued a gag order barring attorneys in the case from talking about it publicly.
Due to the shooting, Dallas inhabitants of colour feel “they can no longer be safe even in their living rooms,” stated imam Omar Suleiman, a pioneer with interfaith group Faith Forward Dallas. Some city residents anticipate Guyger Won’t face legal punishment and are planning to react, he said,
“That’s very dangerous,” Suleiman said. “If the community sees her walk free without any repercussions it’s not just going to be your ordinary protest.”
Legal experts say getting a murder conviction will be difficult in Guyger’s case.
Heath Harris, a defense attorney and former First Assistant District Attorney in Dallas County, stated Guyger’s lawyers will likely argue that she acted in self-defense since she thought she had been in her own house. The situation may well hang on if the jury believes that was a reasonable mistake.
If the jury believes Guyger made a sincere mistake, then that means that the shooting was not murder,” said John Helms, a Dallas defense lawyer and former federal prosecutor. But they could still find her guilty of manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, which could also have heavy sentences,” he said.
Twelve jurors and four choices were chosen to hear the case earlier this month. The racial makeup of the jury has not yet been made public but both attorneys said who’s on the prosecution will be crucial.
“There are going to be some people who, I think, will feel natural sympathy to a police officer,” said Helms. “And there are other people who will have a terrible mistrust of people who are in law enforcement.”
The head of a company that represents Dallas police said he expects all areas of the city will respect the jury’s verdict. However, Dallas Police Officers Association President Mike Mata said he is nervous that external “antagonizers” will use Guyger’s situation to attempt “to make a national statement.”
Mata, a sergeant, called Jean’s passing a “very tragic accident” but stated Guyger’s prosecution has many officers worried they’ll face criminal charges if they use deadly force to defend themselves or others.
“They charged Officer Guyger with murder because they say she knowingly and intentionally pulled the trigger causing the death of another,” Mata said. “Well isn’t that the definition of every police shooting?”
But even within the ranks of Dallas police, Guyger’s situation has sparked debate.
Terrance Hopkins, president of the Black Police Association of Greater Dallas, said he is quick to fix people who call Jean’s passing a police shooting.
“If you look at this thing as, Dallas officer shoots this guy, it’s not that because she’s not on duty,” said Hopkins, a senior corporal. “She’s not responding to a call. She’s not pulling someone over on a traffic stop like we see in police shootings, right?”
However, Hopkins acknowledged that many in Dallas do not observe this distinction. He said, “No, they see white officer, black man.”