The tragedy of the Botham Jean shooting and Amber Guyger murder trial is beyond haunting. I’ve found it difficult to think of much else.
You know the story. On Sept. 6 of last year Jean was minding his own business in his Dallas apartment, innocently eating a bowl of ice cream and watching television, when he was suddenly confronted by Guyger, a neighbor and off-duty Dallas police officer who, she later testified, entered the apartment thinking it was hers. Believing Jean was a burglar, Guyger drew her gun and fired, killing the 26-year-old accountant in his own home, Apt. 1478. Guyger lived a floor below, in 1378.
The results are profound. Jean’s life is senselessly ended. Guyger, 31, has been convicted of murder and sentenced to 10 years in prison. She will be eligible for parole in five years but her life is on hold and she will never again be the law enforcement officer she had dreamed of becoming.
In its simplest form – and it is a far from simple case – I related to this story because I have tried to enter an apartment I thought was mine – and I’ve done it more than once. Missed by one floor each time. On two other occasions I have had strangers enter my home or apartment confused about the correct address. They did not knock. Just walked in.
Now, I am not a police officer, obviously, and I do not carry a gun. But I can relate to what might be a casual mistake which in this case turned into a homicide. I do not believe any of us knows what we would have done in Amber Guyger’s situation.
Personally, I thought the crime was manslaughter, not murder, and deserved a lesser sentence but when I polled our office 90 percent of our employees said they believe the murder conviction was proper. We polled our readers online and 58 percent said the jury got the verdict right; 75 percent said the sentence should have been more than 10 years.
Your opinion about the appropriate punishment for Guyger could undoubtedly be affected by whether you believe her account of what happened. It could also be affected by your race, or your feelings about race in America and the tensions that exist between police and African-Americans in many communities. Guyger was not just a police officer, but a white police officer. Botham Jean was black. Shootings of black men by white officers in recent years have been a source of controversy and often justifiable rage.
Community activists in Dallas praised the jury’s decision to convict Guyger of murder but loudly protested the sentence, some calling it a mere “time out” when weighed against the tragedy of Jean’s death. The jury could have sentenced Guyger to 99 years in prison.
Jean’s mother did not protest the sentence but called for reforms in the training and conduct of Dallas police officers.
Yet amid all the turmoil the day of sentencing, Oct. 2, was marked by one of the most emotional and inspiring scenes ever witnessed in a courtroom when Jean’s brother, 18-year-old Brandt Jean, offered a victim impact statement in open court and said he had forgiven Guyger for killing Botham.
"I love you just like anyone else,” he said to Guyger, who still sat at the defendant’s table where she had sat throughout the trial. "I personally want the best for you ... I don't even want you to go to jail.”
When he finished, Brandt Jean turned to the judge and said, “I don’t know if this is possible, but can I give her a hug?”
The judge said he could. Jean and Guyger rose from their seats, met in front of the judge’s bench and wrapped their arms around each other in a long embrace, letting go, then hugging again.
"In 37 years, I'm trying to go back in my memory bank to see if I've ever seen anything like that and I don't think I have," Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot said during an impromptu courthouse press conference later in the day. "I think that young man was speaking with his heart."
Creuzot said Jean’s actions were "an amazing act of healing and forgiveness that's rare in today's society."
The judge in the case, Tammy Kemp, injected more drama – and more controversy – into the scene when she walked to the defendant’s table, gave Guyger a personal bible she had retrieved from her chambers and hugged the prison-bound former policewoman. The next day, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint against Kemp with a Texas state agency that investigates allegations of judicial misconduct.
What weighs on my mind in these tragic situations is how a life, or in this case multiple lives, can be altered in an instant. The case also highlights the discrepancies in justice in our country. While Guyger sits in prison, how many white police officers still walk free after killing unarmed black men?
Perhaps the best lesson, or maybe the only lesson, we can take from this horrible case is one of selfless compassion and forgiveness taught by the courageous 18-year-old brother of a good man who died for no good reason.
Richard Connor is president and publisher of the Fort Worth Business Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org