For some legal observers, there was only one word for the Amber Guyger guilty verdict on Tuesday: Stunning.
That’s because a police officer likely never even would have been charged just a few years ago, they said.
The case was far from straightforward. And portions of Guyger’s tearful and regret-filled account of her shooting of Botham Jean last year put her in a positive light, some felt.
But not only did the jury give prosecutors the murder conviction they wanted — as opposed to a conviction on the lesser manslaughter charge — they did so after less than a full day of deliberations. Jurors convicted Guyger even after they were allowed to consider her Castle Doctrine defense, which allows Texas homeowners to stand their ground and shoot intruders.
“It’s a seismic shift,” said Aaron Wiley, a former state and federal prosecutor. “The Dallas that exists today is not the same Dallas that existed in 2004.”
Wiley said the jurors did something that juries in other U.S. cities have been hesitant or unwilling to do: convict a police officer of murder.
“At the end of the day, there is a healthy skepticism regarding law enforcement officials,” he said. “Who would have thought that Dallas would be at the forefront of the new civil rights movement? The epicenter is here.”
The Guyger murder conviction is the third one against a Dallas-area police officer in two years. Last year, Roy Oliver, a former Balch Springs officer, was sentenced to 15 years in prison for fatally shooting Jordan Edwards, an unarmed 15-year-old boy.
Also last year, Ken Johnson, a former Farmers Branch police officer, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for chasing down and killing 16-year-old Jose Cruz, who he caught breaking into his SUV.
And a a fourth officer, Michael Dunn, has been charged in the shooting death of Juan Moreno, 35, in June in a shopping center parking lot in northwest Dallas. Farmers Branch police placed Dunn on administrative leave after the incident.
Brian Poe, another former state and federal prosecutor, agreed that Dallas County juries are bucking the trend.
“Historically, first responders have been given deferential treatment,” he said. “We may be seeing a shift here where that’s not the case anymore… They’re not getting the pass like they used to.”
What surprised Poe more, however, was the fact that the Dallas County District Attorney’s office pursued the case even though its lead investigator, a Texas Ranger, believed Guyger acted reasonably when she shot Jean. State District Judge Tammy Kemp did not allow the jury to hear that particular testimony from David Armstrong, a sergeant.
When he was a state prosecutor, Poe said, the general guidance was not to bring a case if the lead detective didn’t think a crime was committed.
“I never wanted to go forward with something unless the investigator believed in the case,” Poe said.
Details and emotion
Derek Staub, a former Dallas County prosecutor who now defends people in state and federal court, said the prosecutors smartly focused on the small details of the case like the red doormat in front of Jean’s apartment.
“You have to look at them. It’ll make or break your case,” he said.
Assistant District Attorney Jason Hermus showed jurors the distinctive doormat and told them it was one of many clues Guyger missed that would have told her she was on the floor above her apartment. With their verdict, Staub said, the jury “clearly said this was not a mistake.”
Staub said prosecutors also did a great job “making this case come alive.” Jurors, he said, could almost picture themselves walking down the apartment building hall on that fateful night.
“The jury felt like they were there,” Staub said, and they said to themselves, ‘What would I do?'”
The fact that Guyger saw no weapons on Jean was key, he said. Guyger testified that all she saw was a body.
“That’s not enough to take out a weapon and shoot,” Staub said.
Staub said Guyger had to testify during her trial, even though it’s risky, in order to explain to jurors what was going on in her mind at the time. Typically, defense lawyers advise their clients not take the witness stand, he said.
“Without her testimony, the defense didn’t stand a chance,” he said.
Staub said Guyger performed well on the stand when she tearfully expressed sorrow and regret.
Wiley said Guyger uttered the right words during her testimony, such as the fact that she killed an innocent man. And she didn’t come across as evasive in her responses, he added. “Those were sympathetic words.” Wiley said. “I developed sympathy for her.”
But the prosecution team also used the emotional death of the victim in their presentation to the jury, Wiley said.
“The emotion carried the day,” he said.
The brief deliberations, Staub said, told him that all 12 jurors were “on board with guilty almost immediately.” The message for police officers, he said, is that “you are being scrutinized,” particularly in Dallas County.
Police officers will have second thoughts about pulling their gun and using it during an incident, Staub said. And that could mean the difference between a dead defendant and one who is still alive, he added. “I think times have changed,” he said.
Staub said there will be more arrests and convictions of police officers, but perhaps not in more conservative areas of North Texas like Collin and Rockwall counties where people are more deferential toward police. The Guyger defense team wisely tried to have the trial moved out of Dallas for that reason, he said. Had they been successful, the result might have been different, Staub added.
“It’s sad but true.”
Poe said the issues of the use of deadly force was key in the trial.
The jury, he said, appeared to agree with prosecutors that Guyger should have used her training to avoid a violent confrontation with Jean on that September 2018 night.
“You have to think that they held her to a higher standard as a police officer, even though she’s off duty and thought she was in her home,” Poe said.
Using the Castle Doctrine as a defense was a “very novel idea,” Poe said. But jurors apparently agreed that it didn’t apply in this case. The law, he said, is for people who feel threatened in their home.
“It goes back to the question of, did she reasonably believe she had to use deadly force?” Poe said.
Wiley said he expected a hung jury. He said police body cameras, when the footage is available, have helped to hold police officers accountable for misconduct.
“We used to not need body cams,” he said. “If the police said it, it’s true.”
Wiley said he believes the failed government prosecution of Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who is black, on corruption charges in 2017 was a “preview into the changing nature of Dallas County juries.”
“That case would have gone in another direction years before,” he said.