In this column, Due Diligence, erstwhile attorney and GQ staff writer Jay Willis untangles the messy intersection of law, politics, and culture.
On Tuesday, a jury found former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger guilty of murdering Botham Jean, a 26-year-old accountant. The case attracted national attention when Guyger claimed that she shot Jean, after she walked in to his apartment last fall, in self-defense. Today's verdict comes as somewhat of a surprise, because many observers feared—with good reason—that Guygur's gambit would work, and that the law would not hold her accountable for Jean's death.
Here are the facts about what happened between Guyger and Jean on September 6, 2018: Guyger, who is white, returned home from work, parked in her apartment building's garage, and headed inside to her unit, 1378. But Guyger, perhaps frazzled after a long shift and/or distracted by flirty texts from her partner on the force, parked on the wrong floor. She walked instead to apartment 1478, the one directly above hers, where Jean, a black man, was sitting on his couch, watching TV and eating ice cream.
The door to Jean's home was unlocked and ajar; Guyger, alarmed and still in uniform, drew her gun and stepped inside. Upon seeing Jean, she fired two rounds, killing him. Guyger, who was subsequently fired from her job and charged with murder, told the court that what happened was a terrible, excusable accident. "I was scared whoever was inside of my apartment was going to kill me, and I'm sorry," she said to the jury during her tearful testimony. "I have to live with that every single day."
The jury, however, did not find her argument persuasive. By convicting her of violating Texas's murder statute, jurors determined that she acted intentionally or knowingly to kill Jean at the moment she pulled the trigger. In doing so, they decided not to convict Guyger of lesser offenses like manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, which would not have required such a finding of her intent. She now faces a sentence of up to 99 years in prison.
Guyger's legal team had centered her defense on the "castle doctrine," a centuries-old legal theory which holds that when in one's own home—their personal "castle"—one has a right to fight back against intruders without first attempting to retreat. Texas has codified the castle doctrine in a series of laws that permit the use of force if one "reasonably believes" it is "immediately necessary to prevent or terminate the other's trespass on the land," and the use of deadly force if they reasonably believe it is necessary to prevent an intruder from committing a crime, or from escaping afterwards. (The doctrine is related to so-called stand-your-ground laws, which extend the no-duty-to-retreat logic to places outside the home, too.) A use of force is presumed to be reasonable against someone breaking in to the home of the person who uses it in self-defense.
The flaw in this reasoning, of course, is that Guyger was not in her home—in her castle—when she killed Jean. She was, instead, trespassing in his home and breaking in to his castle, and she killed him inside of it. Under Texas law, if it had been Jean who shot and killed Guyger when she crossed over the threshold, he would have been perfectly justified in doing so.
Guyger's lawyers offered an answer for that problem, too: In Texas (and many other states), there is no crime if a defendant made a reasonable mistake about a matter of fact—here, the all-important fact that Guyger was in the wrong apartment. It is a theory that knits together two distinct legal concepts into one exculpatory narrative: Because she had an erroneous but good-faith belief about where she was, they argued, she is entitled to the protections of the castle doctrine, which absolves her of criminal responsibility.
Much of Guyger's trial centered on questions about whether her actions were, under the circumstances, reasonable: Did she not notice Jean's red doormat, for example, or differences in the hallways she walked each day? But it was impossible to ignore how race affected the way in which the trial unfolded: Amber Guyger, a white law enforcement officer, killed an unarmed black man in his home, and yet was allowed to assert a defense in court reserved for people in their own homes. As prosecutor Jason Fine put it: "This law is not in place for her. It's in place for Bo."
Guyger's efforts to invoke the castle doctrine here reflect the fact that, like so many aspects of the American criminal justice system, it affords more lenience to white perpetrators and more diligently protects white victims. A 2013 Urban Institute study found that homicides involving a white perpetrator and a black victim were 281 percent more likely to be ruled "justified" than cases in which both perpetrator and victim were white. A Tampa Bay Times analysis of stand-your-ground cases found that defendants who killed black victims walked free 73 percent of the time, compared to only 59 percent in cases involving white victims. In 2015, an American Bar Association task force concluded that the application of stand-your-ground laws is "unpredictable, uneven, and results in racial disparities," and urged state legislatures concerned about the role of implicit racial bias in their courtrooms to amend or repeal those laws altogether.
As deliberations began on Monday, one of the attorneys for the Jean family, Lee Merritt, told reporters that the jurors were making a decision "about the value of black life." This time, the jury didn't let a woman who took it off the hook.
The Bureaucratic Method
There's no telling how many guns we have in America—and when one gets used in a crime, no way for the cops to connect it to its owner. The only place the police can turn for help is a Kafkaesque agency in West Virginia, where, thanks to the gun lobby, computers are illegal and detective work is absurdly antiquated. On purpose. Thing is, the geniuses who work there are quietly inventing ways to do the impossible.
Originally Appeared on GQ