If the name doesn’t strike a bell, read this for background. This is the case where a cop came home after a long shift at work, allegedly found the door to what she thought was her apartment slightly ajar, went inside, and saw the figure of a man there in the darkness. When he didn’t obey her “verbal commands,” she shot him dead. Then she turned on the lights.
She was on the wrong floor. The layout of the apartment was the same as hers, but it was the man’s — Botham Jean’s — apartment, not hers. Or at least that’s what she claims happened. Neighbors have said that they heard banging on the door before the shooting and a woman yelling “Let me in.” Others have noted that there was a doormat in front of Jean’s door that should have alerted the cop, Amber Guyger, to the fact that she wasn’t at her own apartment. And some say it’s impossible for doors in the building to be left ajar. They slam shut on their own when they’re not closed.
I’m glad they charged her, I’m glad there’s been lots of public attention to the story, and I’m glad that this incident hasn’t sparked a rote left-right food fight. I’m still chewing on a murder charge instead of manslaughter here, though.
District Attorney Faith Johnson said Friday of the decision to elevate the charge to murder, “We presented the evidence and explained the law.”
She said her office had a “very spirited conversation” with the Texas Rangers, the lead investigators in the case.
“They chose to file this case as manslaughter. We did our own investigation,” she said. “We thought it was murder all along.”
I’ve read half a dozen stories on the indictment this afternoon but can’t find any account of which story the D.A. presented to the grand jury. Was it Guyger’s story, that this was a terrible misunderstanding, or was evidence from the neighbors offered to suggest that something more sinister happened?
If the grand jury indicted based on the “terrible misunderstanding” theory, you can understand why even the authorities didn’t agree about whether it was murder or manslaughter. On the one hand, Texas’s murder statute is simple as can be:
A person commits an offense if he:
(1) intentionally or knowingly causes the death of an individual; [or]
(2) intends to cause serious bodily injury and commits an act clearly dangerous to human life that causes the death of an individual;
Murder is a crime of intent. Guyger shot Jean intentionally and she certainly intended to cause serious bodily injury, if not outright death, by doing so. QED. “I am not aware of a case in which a person shoots another person in the torso, with death as the result, and is charged with manslaughter,” said the incoming D.A. Pretty straightforward.
But is it straightforward? Why’d the Rangers initially arrest her for manslaughter? Here’s what I wrote in September:
What’s sticky is the fact that the “depraved heart” we associate with murder is obviously missing here *if* the affidavit is correct. What we have instead is a case of mistaken self-defense or “imperfect self-defense,” as some jurisdictions describe it. If Guyger had in fact found herself in the situation which she allegedly thought she was in — a strange man in her home, refusing to put his hands up and get on his knees — she’d walk. The case for self-defense would be so strong that she almost certainly wouldn’t be charged at all. The current manslaughter charge feels like an attempt to split the baby, acknowledging that Guyger is culpable but that the key decision that led to catastrophe was a reckless one, not an intentional one. She walked through the wrong door. (The state could have charged her with criminally negligent homicide, in fact, a lesser offense than manslaughter.) If you’re a prosecutor, what do you do with a set of facts in which a man is dead and the shooter may have had a good-faith yet mistaken belief that she was simply protecting herself from a burglar?
Manslaughter is defined in Texas this way: “A person commits an offense if he recklessly causes the death of an individual.” Guyger shot Jean intentionally but the confrontation itself (if we believe her “terrible misunderstanding” story) was the product of recklessness. What does a jury do with that if they believe Guyger made an honest mistake in entering the wrong apartment?
The Dallas News is worried that she’s been overcharged and will end up walking, a legitimate fear if manslaughter isn’t available as a lesser included offense. A little light googling reveals an old appellate case in Texas, in fact, that dealt with a scenario similar to this one. A man went to the apartment where his estranged wife was staying and pleaded with her to open the door so that they could talk. She told him to beat it or she’d start shooting through the door. He broke the door down and stumbled in, at which point he “glanced” at her and saw her raise her hands. Believing that she was about to shoot him, he pulled his gun and shot her instead. The question for the court: Should the man have been allowed to plead self-defense at trial, even though he was unlawfully in the apartment and mistaken about whether his wife was ready to shoot? Answer: Yep. Let the jury decide whether his belief was reasonable or not. Assuming that case is still good precedent in Texas, Guyger’s surely going to ask for the same instruction on self-defense. If the jury’s only options are a murder conviction and life in prison on the one hand and acquittal on the other, what do they do?
Here’s Jean’s mother celebrating the indictment. The Jean family and its many sympathizers are gratified by the fact that it was murder, not manslaughter, showing that the state and the grand jury are treating this killing with the utmost gravity. I hope that doesn’t come back to haunt them at trial.