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Attorney Benjamin Crump (right) speaks at a news conference alongside Botham Jean’s family on September 10, 2018. | Ryan Tarinelli/AP

Amber Guyger’s murder trial is sure to be as contentious as the case itself.

The murder trial for Amber Guyger, the former off-duty police officer who fatally shot her neighbor, 26-year-old St. Lucia native Botham Shem Jean, begins Monday.

Jean’s death immediately drew national attention, raising questions about what led to the unarmed black man being shot inside his own apartment. These are the known facts: Guyger, a four-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department and Jean’s downstairs neighbor, had gotten off of a work shift on September 6 when she returned to her Dallas apartment building. When she arrived, Guyger got out of her car, then entered Jean’s apartment, firing at the man soon after and hitting him in the chest. Guyger then called 911, but Jean died of his injuries at a nearby hospital.

Beyond these details, though, the explanation for what happened that September night differs depending on whose perspective is centered. Guyger says that she didn’t realize that she was on the wrong floor of her building and that the apartment she was in was not, in fact, hers. Seeing a “large silhouette” in the dark apartment, she said she thought she was being burglarized, and fired her weapon after giving “verbal commands.” She then turned on the lights in the apartment, and called 911.

In an interview with the Texas Rangers shortly after the shooting, Guyger said that she did not realize her mistake until she looked at the apartment number outside the door. Her lawyers are expected to argue that the shooting was a tragic mistake, but that Guyger was allowed to defend herself if she thought an intruder was in her home, even if she was not actually in her apartment.

Jean’s family and Dallas prosecutors view things differently. They argue that Guyger’s account doesn’t add up, with the family noting last year that she should have noticed details alerting her to being in the wrong apartment, like a red doormat outside Jean’s door. Official documents in the case have also sparked confusion: A September 7 search warrant from the Dallas Police Department describes a very different account of the shooting than what was included in a September 9 arrest affidavit compiled by the Texas Rangers, the law enforcement agency tasked with the initial investigation of the shooting.

Guyger was initially charged with manslaughter and was not taken into police custody until three days after the shooting, fueling accusations that she was being shielded by the police department. She was fired in late September, after the department argued for weeks that she could not be immediately terminated. In November, she was indicted on murder charges by a grand jury.

However, the shooting has raised bigger questions. It adds to an ongoing national conversation about police use of force and has prompted a discussion of how Dallas police treat residents of color — meaning that the outcome of the trial will likely draw as much attention as the shooting that facilitated it.

Botham Jean’s death sparked a conversation about race and policing in Dallas

The Jean case isn’t what comes to mind when we think of police shootings. But the ways that black people have historically been affected by police violence have influenced how this case has been discussed from the beginning.

That’s partly because the Jean shooting was initially handled like an officer-involved shooting, and Guyger only began to be treated like a civilian after it was clear that she shot Jean while off-duty. Jean’s family argued that Guyger was given preferential treatment because she wasn’t immediately taken into police custody and was allowed to remain free on bond.

Jean’s family also voiced concerns about what the police did and did not share in the early days after the shooting, particularly following reports highlighting that a small amount of marijuana was found in Jean’s apartment.

Lee Merritt, an attorney representing Jean’s family, called the warrant’s contents evidence of a “smear campaign” against Jean. In an interview with the Washington Post last year, he said that the warrant fit into “a familiar pattern” seen in police shootings involving black victims.

“It’s a systemic issue,” Merritt said. “We’ve been conditioned to associate black people with crime.”

As the investigation into the case continued, politicians like Beto O’Rourke, at the time a candidate for the US Senate, said that the shooting was yet another example of how “young black men continue to be killed in this country without accountability, without justice.”

While the Jean shooting differs significantly from on-duty police shootings, the concerns over the handling and outcomes of both types of cases are similar. Generally, if police officers are charged in on-duty shootings, they’re very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.

“Everything she did was [as] a police officer,” Allison Jean, Botham’s mother, said in a September 5 interview with the Dallas Morning News. “And if she was just a common citizen, we wouldn’t even be talking today because that person would be in jail by now.”

This was part of why activists and Jean’s family argued that his death was inseparable from other acts of police violence, setting off a series of protests last September. In October, Jean’s family filed a lawsuit against the city of Dallas, arguing that city officials and leadership of the Dallas Police Department “failed to implement and enforce such policies, practices and procedures for the DPD that respected Jean’s constitutional rights.”

“Officer Guyger was ill-trained, and as a result, defaulted to the defective DPD policy: to use deadly force even when there exists no immediate threat of harm to themselves or others,” the lawsuit says. The suit suggests, more broadly, that the department has a “pattern, practice, history and custom of using excessive force against minorities, including approaching them with guns drawn.” The civil lawsuit has been paused until Guyger’s trial concludes.

The road to Guyger’s trial has been rocky

Lawyers on both sides of the case have been under a gag order, meaning that they have been barred from discussing the trial in the media for the past several months. But that doesn’t mean that things have been quiet: In April, for example, audio of the 911 call Guyger made the night of Jean’s shooting was leaked to Texas news outlet WFAA. In the call, Guyger can be heard saying, “I’m going to lose my job. I thought it was my apartment,” as she speaks with a dispatcher. The leak of the call prompted the Dallas Police Department to launch an internal investigation earlier this year.

Over the summer, Guyger’s lawyers argued that the case needed to be moved out of Dallas entirely, saying that public officials and “media hysteria” had biased the local community against Guyger, limiting her chances for a fair trial. Her attorneys have also argued it is improper to compare the Jean shooting to other incidents involving police, saying that media outlets had spread “the false narrative that merely because [Guyger] is white and Mr. Jean was black, the incident must have been racial in nature.”

Guyger’s lawyers wanted the trial to be moved to one of six other counties in North Texas. Local reporting has shown that any such move was likely to produce a jury that is whiter and more conservative than a jury in Dallas would be. Judge Tammy Kemp denied this motion, though, and the trial remains in Dallas.

Dallas police officers are also reportedly preparing for the outcome of the trial, announcing that no more officers would be allowed to take time off while it proceeds.

As the trial begins, there are still many unknown variables. But one thing is clear: The questions, frustrations, and tensions that Jean’s death stirred last year are far from settled.

Author: P.R. Lockhart

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