Amber Guyger, the former Dallas police officer who was convicted of murdering Botham Jean, her upstairs neighbor who she shot to death when she entered it, thinking it was her apartment and that he was a burglar was sentenced to 10 years in prison Wednesday.
But in a show of compassion during the victim’s impact statement phase, Jean’s brother Brandt, 18, offered his forgiveness and then hugged her in the middle of the courtroom.
“I want the best for you, because I know that’s what Botham would want for you and that’s to give your life to Christ…I love you as a person and I don’t wish anything bad on you,” he said before requesting that Judge Tammy Kemp allow him to give her a hug. She collapsed in tears in his arms.
The Dallas County jury of 10 nonwhites and 2 whites came up with the sentence after about 90 minutes of deliberating. They rejected the “sudden passion” defense, which suggested there was a heavy emotional circumstance rather than premeditation. The sentencing range was between 5 and 99 years.
With the murder conviction, she would be eligible for parole after half her sentence is served. It is unclear if there will be an appeal although legal experts have said it could be expected.
Guyger herself requested that if found guilty, a jury hand down her sentence rather than the trial judge. The same jurors found the ex-cop guilty after about five hours of deliberation on Tuesday, much to the elation of those who had watched the case closely for months. Some showed frustration outside the courtroom, though after the sentence was read.
But Jean’s mother, Allison was stern with her response to the sentencing and did not mention forgiving Guyger, as her youngest son did, but focused on the mistakes made by the Dallas police force.
“That 10 years in prison is 10 year for her reflection and for her to change her life,” said Jean. But there is much more to be done by the city of Dallas. The corruption that we saw during this process must stop, but it must stop for you.
“The poor use of what should have been training is what we see coming out of this case,” she continued. “That should never happen again. If this was applied in the way that it ought to have been taught, my son would be alive today.”
At a press conference, Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said his office has improved their investigative work on police shootings and expressed satisfaction with the verdict and the sentence.
“After the evidence they were given many, many instructions to their benefit, which could have resulted in a not guilty,” he said. “They rejected those, they returned a verdict of guilty.”
The trial drew wide attention partly because it was another example of an unarmed Black man being shot to death by a police officer under dubious circumstances (at the very least). In this case, many were surprised by the verdict because of the rarity of a conviction, or even charges against an officer.
It is the second major conviction of a police officer this year, following the case of Mohamed Noor, a Somali-American member of the Minneapolis police force who shot to death Justine Ruszczyk Damond in 2017. He was sentenced to 12 ½ years in prison for the killing.
After two days of testimony from Jean’s mother and also his father Bertrum, his sister, Alissa Finley and others, including friends and colleagues, jurors determined that Guyger, 31, deserved the years handed down after her defense lawyers attempted to get a minimal sentence.
“My life has not been the same… like a roller coaster. I cannot sleep. I cannot eat. It’s just been the most terrible time for me,” said Jean’s mother through tears. “I’ve been sick often. But I have to try to keep the family together, because everyone is in pain.”
At one point she tearfully recalled the time her son surprised her in Saint Lucia for Mother’s Day, sharing, “He surprised me. I heard his voice. I thought I was dreaming. He came all the way from Arkansas to Saint Lucia to surprise me.”
Prosecutors used her disciplinary record and texts and social media posts to show that her sentence should not be light. In one example, they brought up jokes she made at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade including one in which she texts, “just push them…or spray your pepper spray in that general area.”
During the trial defense lawyers tried to convince jurors that Guyger legitimately believed she was defending herself since she thought she was in her own apartment. They tried to use the Castle Doctrine, which supports defending oneself while in their own home, but prosecutors managed to prove that it Guyger could reasonably have determined she was in the wrong place before she started shooting.
On Sept. 6, 2018, according to police reports and court documents, Guyger a four-year Dallas police veteran, had come home from a 13-hour shift and had gone to an apartment directly above her own. She was off duty, but still in uniform when she went to the door. It was unlocked and not latched correctly when she tried to enter it.
According to an affidavit, Guyger saw that the apartment was dark and thinking a shadow she saw across the room, she drew her weapon, gave verbal commands, then fired twice, striking Jean, 26, in the chest.
Neighbors in the residential complex, located not far from downtown Dallas, testified in the trial that they did not hear Guyger shouting normal commands that an officer would issue when encountering an offender, but they did hear indistinct shouting and finally two gunshots.
Guyger called 911 and as she turned on the lights, she testified, she realized she was in the wrong apartment. She began to attempt to revive Jean, and as officers arrived they attempted CPR. He was taken to an area hospital and later pronounced dead.
Days later, Guyger was arrested and charged with manslaughter, and within weeks was fired by the Dallas Police Department. In November 2018, she was indicted for murder.
With the sentencing, many feel a corner has been turned and a precedent has been set for conviction of police in the shooting death of unarmed Blacks.
But though rare, this is also not the first time for such a conviction.
In addition to the Noor case, last year, ex-Balch Springs, Tex. officer Roy Oliver was found guilty and sentenced to 15 years behind bars for the shooting death of 17-year-old Jordan Edwards, who was leaving a party when he was fatally wounded in the passenger seat of a car.
In 2017, Michael Slager a former North Charleston, S.C., officer was sentenced to 20 years in prison for the shooting death of Walter Scott. In that incident, video showed Slager shooting Scott in the back as he ran away.
Also, former San Francisco bay area transit cop Johannes Mehserle, was convicted of shooting Oscar Grant to death at an Oakland, Calif., train station. He served 11 months of a two year sentence. The incident formed the basis for the 2013 film Fruitvale Station.
Further back, two ex-Detroit police officers Larry Nevers and Walter Budzyn were convicted of second degree murder in the beating death of Malice Green in 1992 outside of a drug house. Nevers was sentenced to 12 to 25 years in prison, Budzyn received 8 to 18 years. Both men appealed their convictions and in 1997 the Michigan Supreme Court overturned Budzyn’s conviction. After several more appeals, Nevers was released from prison in 2001. He died in 2013.
theGrio senior writer Blue Telusma contributed to this report.