The family of Botham Jean, the unarmed black man who was shot and killed in his own apartment by a white former Dallas Police officer last month, filed a federal civil lawsuit last Friday.
The suit was filed by attorney Lee Merritt, one of the lawyers representing Jean’s family and it lists Jean’s parents, Bertrum and Allison Jean, as plaintiffs while former officer Amber Guyger and the City of Dallas are defendants.
“We believe this is the de facto policy of the Dallas Police Department,” Merritt said in an interview with theGrio on Monday evening. “We’ve cited a laundry list of cases in the last 10-15 years and Dallas is among the top cities in America for police brutality, particularly when it involves people of color who were unarmed.”
“We believe it is indicative of a pattern and practice within the city of Dallas, particularly the Dallas Police Department,” he added. “Police officers have been able to articulate an unsubstantiated and unjustifiable fear with the use of force and in the case of Ms. Guyger’s first shooting, her word alone was sufficient to absolve her of any liability when shooting an unarmed person of color.”
Not her first shooting
Officer Guyger has shot a man under questionable circumstances before the incident with Jean. On May 12, 2017, Guyger shot and wounded Uvaldo Perez while she was on duty. An affidavit in that case said that police were looking for a suspect when Guyger and another officer were called to assist. Perez got out of a car and allegedly became combative with Guyger. A struggle ensued, and she shot Perez after he allegedly wrestled her Taser away from her. According to the lawsuit, Guyger was not charged nor was she required to receive any mental counseling.
Merritt plans to make Guyger accountable for Botham Jean’s death. Just days after killing Jean, Guyger was arrested and charged with manslaughter and has since been fired from the Dallas Police Department. The lawsuit contends the department did not adequately train Guyger and Merritt believes that the department has actively sought to minimize and cover up the shooting.
“Initially, they treated the case as an officer-involved shooting, as was appropriate,” said Merritt. “Although she had clocked out, she was still in uniform, she was acting as a police officer, she used her service weapon, she gave verbal commands…everything that is necessary under the law for a police officer to operate as such was present, but once they realized they would personally be liable for her actions, they decided days later to switch this as if they could simply say it was not an officer-involved shooting and make liability go away.”
Merritt points out the involvement of the Texas Rangers, which consciously came in tandem with the leaking of evidence that began a week after the shooting. He believes it to bee an attempt to cast the victim, Jean, in a criminal light and justify Guyger’s killing of him.
“When the Texas Rangers investigate a police officer, the police officers get off,” he said. “Instead of assuming responsibility and figuring out what went wrong in this case and how it plays into the overall culture of the department, they went into cover-up mode.”
“Instead of properly treating it as an officer-involved shooting and a homicide, they began looking for evidence of criminality in Botham’s apartment,” he added. “Moreover, they know the more information you put out there in the public, the higher the likelihood that case will be moved out of that jurisdiction because of a concern that the jury pool will be tainted. So, they’re purposely trying to provide an out for the defense team to have the trial moved out of Dallas County.”
One officer convicted in 50 years
Merritt said that getting the trial out of Dallas County could help spare Guyger and he cites recent history as proof.
“Dallas County is the only county in the region that has any chance of convicting an officer,” he added. “It’s a low likelihood. In the last 50 years, only one officer has been convicted of murder in Dallas County.”
Roy Oliver, the former Balch Springs police officer, is that man. He was convicted of murder last month in the killing of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Merritt represented Edwards’ family in that case.
“[Convicting a cop] still a very rare thing, but if it has any chance in the state of Texas, it has to take place in Dallas County,” he said.
Dallas Police have declined to comment on the suit, which is seeking undisclosed damages.
Merritt said that Jean’s family is going over just how much of an economic loss Botham’s death has caused. Jean was an associate at PriceWaterhousecoopers and lived an “exemplary” life, according to Merritt, and he had bigger dreams before he was cut down in the prime of his life in the middle of his home.
“He aspired to return to [St. Lucia] and run for prime minister and that wasn’t a pipe dream,” he said. “I do these cases all over the country and I don’t think there is one that will out pace this case in monetary value.”
An International Incident
Merritt sees Jean’s death as a part of a greater conversation about officer-involved killings and sees where it could become an international topic of discussion, considering Jean was born in St. Lucia. Regardless of how the criminal and civil cases shake out, Merritt and the family plan to push this further.
“This case is unique in the sense that it’s an international case,” he said. “This is a case that we’re preparing a petition before the United Nations because we believe it’s the policies and procedures of the United States, particularly how our Supreme Court perceives the Constitution. It’s a case that we want to bring before an international tribunal.”
Merritt says his main frustration comes with how accustomed this country has become to these types of killings. It’s a problem that, as Merritt sees it, that is American as apple pie.
“Unfortunately, in our community, it happens so often that you need some sort of unique trigger in order for anything to register in the national consciousness,” Merritt said. “We’ve grown so accustomed to deadly police shootings that I don’t think we respond [as a country] with the proper disdain.”
“My take away from this case is that we can see a community acting in the appropriate way and we can see America for what it is and that’s having the deadliest police culture in the modern world – and, for what it’s worth, the most incarcerated place on Earth, to boot,” he added. “I believe we can soberly come up with solutions.”
Jay Scott Smith is an award-winning broadcaster, writer and also the host of JSCRadio. He has written for Newsweek, NPR, MSNBC, ESPN, and VIBE Magazine.