When a police officer fatally shoots a black man, the legal system often sides with the cop. Some officers never get charged. It’s even more rare for officers to get convicted.
So when Dallas jurors convicted Amber Guyger of murder — not a lesser charge of manslaughter — jaws dropped across the country.
“I, for one, was not expecting a white police officer to be convicted on the more serious charge for killing a black man, however bizarre the circumstances,” CNN Opinion contributor Jill Filipovic wrote.
“What this guilty verdict may at least show is there are some lines even white police officers can’t cross when killing unarmed black people.”
But prosecutors didn’t focus on race during the trial.
So how did they secure this rare conviction in a police-involved shooting? Jurors haven’t spoken publicly yet. But prosecutors highlighted several unique elements in making their case.
Details of the case were just too bizarre
Many observers had a hard time believing Guyger made a reasonable mistake when she went to Botham Jean’s apartment, mistook it for her own, and shot Jean because she thought he was a burglar.
Guyger missed many clues that she was at the wrong apartment, prosecutors said. One prosecutor even held up Jean’s bright red doormat in the courtroom to show how hard it would be to miss.
Barry Sorrels, a Texas defense attorney not involved in the Guyger case, said the prosecution successfully laid out the facts.
“I think they stuck to the believable facts. I don’t think the prosecution played games, as far as trying to embellish and make things worse,” Sorrels said. “They didn’t need to.”
Prosecutors illustrated Guyger’s faults as a police officer
During Guyger’s testimony, lead prosecutor Jason Hermus asked why she didn’t back away from the apartment and call for backup.
He said officers are trained to conceal and cover when encountering a possible burglar.
But Guyger said firing on Jean “was the only option that went through my head.”
The prosecutor reminded Guyger that she took an 8-hour de-escalation training course five months before the shooting.
“What did you take from that class?” Hermus asked.
“I don’t remember,” Guyger replied.
Guyger testified she performed a “little” CPR on Jean and did a sternum rub.
Hermus asked why would she try to “do a little CPR on a man who’s dying who needs your full attention.”
Her mind was racing, Guyger said. She was on the phone with the 911 operator and it didn’t cross her mind that she had first aid supplies in her backpack, she said.
Guyger expressed concern about losing her job as Jean was dying
In Guyger’s frantic 911 call after the shooting, the then-officer said 19 times that she thought she was in her own apartment.
After the dispatcher told her help was on the way, Guyger cried and said, “I know, but I’m going to lose my job. I thought it was my apartment.”
Body camera footage from a responding officer showed Guyger panicking inside Jean’s apartment.
But she didn’t immediately tell the officers where Jean had been shot. Instead, she repeats her alibi: “I thought it was my apartment.”
Guyger was correct about losing her job. The Dallas Police Department fired her before her murder trial started.
Prosecutors highlighted questionable messages to her patrol partner
Moments before the shooting, Guyger was on the phone with her police partner, Martin Rivera.
But the two didn’t have just a professional relationship. Guyger testified that she once had an affair with her married partner, one that she later described as “morally wrong.”
Yet even after Guyger fatally shot Jean, she found time to text Rivera and even sent sexual messages to him days later, a prosecutor said.
Rivera testified that he deleted the texts between him and Guyger from the night of the shooting.
“That’s not something that I would want to be reminded of,” Rivera said. “And I don’t keep messages saved unless it’s of an importance to me.”
Some activists are calling for Rivera to be fired from the police department as well. But Dallas police said they are unable to comment on his future until a judge’s gag order is lifted.
How the Guyger case might make officers think twice
Jurors and the public often give police officers the benefit of the doubt, and there is often a high burden of proof. The federal statute used to evaluate police shootings, for instance, requires a finding that the officer willfully or intentionally sought to kill someone.
It’s not clear if Guyger’s murder conviction will have an impact on the policing community — especially because Guyger was off duty at the time of the shooting, and the circumstances were unique.
But Jean’s family and attorneys said the verdict sends a broader message in a time when black men often feel they are targets of racial profiling.
“It’s a signal that the tide is going to change,” said S. Lee Merritt, a civil attorney for Jean’s family.
After the verdict, Merritt quoted Jean’s mother as saying it’s “a victory for black people in America.”
He said he believes the verdict means officers will be “held accountable for their actions, and we believe that will begin to change policing culture all over the world.”