Jean's mother Allison after the verdict. All photos by Tom Fox/Dallas News
In what some deem "a seismic shift" in a criminal injustice system that has long seen police shoot innocent black men and women without being held in any way accountable, a Dallas jury has found former cop Amber Guyger guilty of murder for killing her neighbor Botham Jean, a black 26-year-old accountant from St. Lucia and literal church choir boy who "loved God...loved everyone," after she mistakenly barged into his apartment while he ate ice cream and chilled out. On that night almost exactly a year ago, the 31-year-old white Guyger - off-duty, in uniform, evidently distracted from just "sexting" her married colleague and lover - burst into Jean's apartment directly above her own as he was settling onto his couch, an ironing board and iron beside him, to watch TV. She was there for mere seconds - his ice cream was still frozen - when she opened fire, hitting him in the chest and heart. Panicked, she called 911. Harrowing bodycam video - which Jean's anguished parents were inadvertently forced to watch - shows officers rushing in soon after and applying CPR as Guyger flits helplessly around the room wailing she thought it was her apartment, despite Jean's bright red doormat, open door, different layout and other visual clues she was in the wrong place. Last weekend, Jean would have turned 28.
During the trial, the jury sought to determine if Guyger had acted reasonably, or if the prosecution could prove beyond a reasonable doubt she intentionally killed Jean. On the stand, Guyger tearfully testified she believed Jean was a deadly threat who "was going to kill me" - evidently with a spoon - that she meant to kill him, and that being alone in a room with an unarmed man was "the scariest thing you could imagine," to which critics suggested, "Actually, being shot in your own apartment while eating Ice Cream and being allowed to bleed out without help while the person who unjustly shot u refused to provide you any first aid is the 'scariest thing' you could imagine." Guyger also insisted, "This is not about hate, it’s about being scared,” though the surfacing of racist social media posts in which she joked about killing people, mocked Martin Luther King, and posed with relatives flashing White Power signs undermined her claim. At the core of the case, both sides agreed but differently interpreted, were Guyger's multiple errors, from ignoring the visual cluesto failing to retreat and call for back-up. “She made a series of horrible mistakes,” said her attorney. "The law recognizes that mistakes can be made” - a claim that seemingly ignores the many thousands of mistake-makers now languishing in America's prisons.
Prosecutors argued her mistakes were "hideously reckless" and "unreasonable" from a supposedly trained police officer, from her missing so many clues to her "commando-style" entry to her lying she gave Jean verbal commands before opening fire to her claim she gave him "a little CPR" when the video shows otherwise. "My God. This is crazy," raged prosecutor Jason Fine, who during closing statements read Guyger's plaint about "what I had to go through that night" from a paper he then crumpled and tossed in a trashcan, noting "Bo" simply started to stand up “like a normal person who has somebody busting into his home (and) was only armed with ice cream and his far more lethal black body." "That is garbage. Most of what she said is garbage...Killing this man was unnecessary and unreasonable from start to finish. Nobody had to die.” When Judge Tammy Kemp read the guilty verdict after only five hours of deliberation, there was an audible gasp in the courtroom. Many were particularly surprised given Kemp's earlier ruling allowing the jury to consider Guyger's actions under Texas’ “castle doctrine,” comparable to “stand your ground” laws, even though critics noted Guyger was "standing her ground" in what was Jean's castle. After the verdict, Jean's family, dressed in his favorite color red, walked out weeping, hugging and chanting, "Black lives matter!" His mother cried, "God is good!" and his grandmother raised her fist in the air.
At the sentencing hearing later, his family offered heartrending testimony of what they had lost. His mother Allison movingly described a close family and a young churchman who excelled at school, helped kids at risk and the elderly, mentored his young brother and sometimes flew home to surprise his mother with visits. His preacher father Bertrum recounted Bo calling him every Sunday to ask about the day's sermon; Bo also sent his father photos of what he was cooking that day. "How could we have lost Botham - such a sweet boy," he wept. "He tried his best to live a good, honest life. He loved God. He loved everyone. How could this happen to him?" The same way, many weary activists note, it happened to so many other black men. Some celebrated Guyger's murder conviction, the third against a Dallas cop in two years, as "a seismic shift," in part thanks to its black female judge and diverse jury reflecting the city. Others bitterly noted its rarity: Tweeted Maya Rupert, "The number of people stunned that Amber Guyger will be held accountable tells us all we need to know about what we mean when we say #BlackLivesMatter. It’s a plea." With the verdict, "the family has found some measure of justice," said Jean attorney Benjamin Crump, who knows better than most it's too little too late. “This verdict is for Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Stephon Clark...for so many unarmed Black and Brown human beings all across America. This verdict is for them.”
A friend of Bo's posted video of him leading worship at church, singing, "Let the glory of the Lord/ just let it rise." "This is who Amber Guyger murdered," he wrote. "Rest in power, brother."
Assistant D.A. Jason Hermus holds photo of Botham during closing arguments
Botham's father Bertrum testifies his son was "such a sweet boy."
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Update: In a twist that many activists saw as one final betrayal, the jury late Wednesday sentenced Guyger to 10 years in prison, far below the 28 years - one for each year of Bo's life - prosecutors had sought, and many had expected for a murder conviction that could have brought life in prison. Instead, Guyger could get out in just five years. The Jean family seemed to accept the sentence and the closure it brought, though Allison Jean pointedly cited evidence during the trialof police protecting Guyger to insist, "Dallas police have a lot of laundry to do." And many of the city's activists decried the light sentence as proof of "the continuity of the system, even after we begin to change it." "It's amazing how quickly injustice can be seized from the hands of justice," said Rev. Michael Walters of Joy Tabernacle A.M.E. Church. "This is a travesty."
Sentencing also brought the trial's most dramatic moment as Bo's younger brother Brandt tearfully said he forgave Guyger, urged her to give her life to Christ, and asked if he could hug her. When the judge agreed, the young, black, bereft man and the white murderer embraced as those in the courtroom sobbed. (The judge also hugged Guyger and gave her a Bible, a move that raised eyebrows.) Later, many praised the Jeans' spirit of forgiveness, what Mayor Eric Johnson called their "incredible examples of love, faith and strength." Others blasted the white privilege on display: They wondered what sentence Bo would have gotten if the roles were reversed, and they recited a litany of other black travesties endured - five years for voting while on probation, 14 years for the exonerated Central Park Five, life for stealing a jacket or selling drugs. "Dear White America," one critic wrote. "Black folks are tired of bringing you to catharsis at the continued cost of our relatives, our own bodies, and our spirits. Forgiveness was shown (and is time and time again) for injustice towards us. LEARN THE DAMN LESSON ALREADY."
"I love you just like anyone else," Brandt told Guyger. "I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die just like my brother did, but I personally want the best for you.”