Amber Guyger's 10-year sentence sparks both protests and an act of forgiveness
World / 3 October 2019, 08:44am / Brittany Shammas, Reis Thebault, Hannah Knowles, Annette Nevins
Dallas - The white former police officer who shot and killed her unarmed black neighbor in his own apartment was sentenced to 10 years in prison - the conclusion of a dramatic trial that spotlighted issues of racial injustice, police accountability and the extraordinary capacity of a victim's family to forgive a perpetrator.
Amber Guyger, 31, could have faced up to 99 years in the 2018 slaying of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old St. Lucia native, church singer and accountant whose death drew protesters to Dallas streets. On Tuesday, Guyger's murder conviction was heralded as a rare victory in the national push for policing reform.
But on Wednesday, her sentence was almost immediately met with protest.
In the hallway outside the courtroom, Jean family supporters called the punishment "a slap in the face," as prosecutors had asked for a sentence no less than 28 years - the age Jean would be if he were still alive.
Inside the courtroom, a stunning scene was unfolding. Jean's younger brother - described by his family as suffering the most after the shooting - spoke directly to Guyger. He urged her to pray, he forgave her and he asked permission to give her a hug.
"I love you as a person and I don't wish anything bad on you," Brandt Jean told Guyger from the stand.
Then, as their families watched, the ex-officer and the brother of the man she killed met in the front of the room and held each other in a long embrace. They were both in tears, and sobs could be heard in the courtroom.
Judge Tammy Kemp, who presided over the case, held a tissue to her eyes and hugged each member of Jean's family after the trial ended. She then approached Guyger and, in another emotional moment, handed her a Bible and embraced her, too.
It was an unusual, striking conclusion to the high-profile case that reconstructed the night of September 6, 2018.
Guyger claimed she thought she was entering her own third-floor apartment that night. She said she mistook Jean for a burglar and shot him, fearing for her life. Prosecutors argued that Jean posed no threat - he was sitting on a couch in his fourth-floor unit eating ice cream before Guyger walked in, they said. Jurors agreed and rejected Guyger's self-defense argument.
Under Texas law, the 12-member jury that convicted Guyger was tasked with determining her punishment. Jurors rejected the "sudden passion" defense, which would have lowered the sentencing range to two to 20 years. But they chose a punishment on the lower end of the five to 99 years allowed for murder.
Legal experts said Guyger's lack of a criminal record and her career in public service may have played a role in the punishment.
"I would imagine with her being a police officer, even though they found her guilty, there would probably be some individuals on the jury who might be sympathetic to her," said Kenneth Williams, a professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston.
For a crime of this magnitude, Guyger's lawyers are likely pleased with the length of the sentence, said Brook Busbee, a law professor at Southern Methodist University.
In a post to Twitter, where "Only 10" was among the most talked about phrases Wednesday night, Jean family lawyer Lee Merritt said the sentence was indicative of a broken system, one where institutional racism is the rule and people of color are treated unjustly.
"Of course that's inadequate," Merritt wrote. "The entire justice system is inadequate and the work must continue."
Before breaking for deliberations, jurors heard from friends and family of both Guyger and Jean, who testified about the far-reaching consequences of their fatal encounter.
Prosecutors asked jurors to consider how the loss of Jean - a loving, encouraging man who spent his short life wanting to help others - reverberated through his family and his community.
"We all were robbed of Botham and the greatness that he brought to Dallas County," one prosecutor said. "But honestly, who knows what his impact could truly have been had his life not been taken from him."
They contrasted Jean's character to Guyger's, pointing to text messages in which the fired cop mocked her black colleagues and joked about the death of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Those exchanges reveal what she "had in her heart" when others weren't looking, they argued.
But Guyger's attorneys said the texts were only a "snapshot" of her life and sought to portray her as a dedicated public servant who made a terrible mistake. Guyger's loved ones said she overcame a childhood sexual assault to get her job in law enforcement, a dream she'd held since she was a little girl.
"For her, that was all she ever wanted, all she ever dreamed of," said Dallas police Officer Cathy Odhiabo, one of Guyger's friends.
Karen Guyger, the ex-officer's mother, said that when her daughter first called to tell her what happened, she was crying so hard it was difficult to understand.
"She wanted to take his place," Karen Guyger said. "She always would tell me she wishes she could have taken his place."
Friends and family of Jean told the jury about the pain of losing a warm and joyful man, a natural leader and supportive friend.
His best friend Alexis Stossel read through her last text-message exchange with Jean. She didn't see his response until the next morning. About the same time, she got a phone call and was told he had been killed.
"I slumped to the floor, and I just kept - I just kept screaming, 'Wait, wait, wait, wait!' " she said. "I hung up the phone, and then I called Botham seven times. And there was no answer."
Jean's father, Bertram Jean, took the stand after Stossel. He wept as he talked about his son. His friends sometimes told him he babied his boy, taking him to school every day and picking him up in the afternoons, but he always wanted him near.
After Jean left St. Lucia, father and son remained close, communicating via WhatsApp and always discussing church sermons on Sundays, Bertram Jean said.
"How could this have happened to our family?" Bertram Jean asked. "How could we have lost Botham, such a good boy? He tried his best to live a good, honest life. He loved God; he loved everyone. How could this have happened to him?"
Late Wednesday, roughly 200 demonstrators gathered on the courthouse steps and denounced Guyger's 10-year sentence. They called for broader police reform and connected Jean's death to a long history of police brutality toward black Americans.
"We are here because we are sick and tired of another son lost to police brutality," said Dee Crane a member of the group Second Look at My Sons and mother of Tavis Crane, who was killed by police in neighboring Arlington in 2017. "We didn't get justice here."
Civil rights activist Omar Suleiman said he hopes the case leads to a broader discussion about policing and accountability.
"We need to continue to seek reform of the police department," he said to shouts and applause. "We are not broken. We are not deterred."
Suleiman's comments echoed those of Jean's mother, who spoke at a news conference after the jury returned the sentence. She said the trial should inspire reform and she criticising the way the police force handled evidence at the crime scene and advocating for an overhaul in the way it trains its officers - claims that apparently resonated with the city's police chief, who announced the department would open an internal affairs investigation into some of the issues raised during the trial.
"There is much more to be done by the city of Dallas," Allison Jean said. "The corruption we saw during this process must stop. . . . Our life must move on, but our life must move on with change. There's got to be a better day."