The jury returned its verdict against former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger. Guilty. Not of manslaughter, but murder. This strikes many as troubling, as there was nothing to suggest that Guyger had some personal beef with Botham Jean, a good man enjoying some ice cream on the couch in his own apartment. Murder seemed wrong, as it wasn’t him, personally, she wanted to kill.
So why couldn’t it be manslaughter, a lesser offense to cover a reckless killing. After all, the entire scenario leading to the death of Botham Jean stunk of recklessness, as the distracted Guyger was tired, focused on porn on her phone, made the grievous mistake of going to the wrong floor, the wrong apartment and leaping to the wrong assumption that Jean was a burglar in her place.
The jury apparently rejected her “mistake of fact” defense, which would have inextricably led to invocation of the Castle Doctrine, which would have certainly resulted in her acquittal. This requires an exercise in distinguishing very discrete legal issues. One way to view the case is a continuum, starting with the mistaken entry and ending in the killing of Jean. But that’s not how the lawyers or the court viewed it, as well they shouldn’t.
There were two independent acts involved: first, the entry into the apartment. Second, the killing of Botham Jean. The entry was found to be unreasonable. The jury was not asked to find whether it was reckless as that was not in issue.
But the shooting? It was clearly an intentional act. Amber Guyger drew her weapon, aimed and, with every intention of putting her bullets into the body of the man before her, fired. There was nothing reckless about it, even if the body into which her bullets entered was not the bad man she might have believed him to be.
Where this feels wrong, feels more like manslaughter than murder, is in the lack of motive. She had no motive to kill Jean. But motive is not an element of the crime, but more an emotional connection for the benefit of television viewers who want to love or hate the perp. Guyger’s killing of Jean was not the act of a malevolent cop hating a person, or having an unwarranted fear that this black man was likely a violent threat for no better reason than his skin color. Pathetically, it was a banal screw up, where the person who made the initial mistake happened to be a cop with a gun and the support of the law that she could kill any uninvited person in her dwelling at night.
Murder was the right charge. Murder was the right crime of conviction. There is no question but that the killing was intentional, even if it wasn’t motivated by malice.
But this raises a problem in the next phase of the case, as we associate murder with a malicious heart even if there is a case, as here, where the killing wasn’t venal.
Guyger faces a sentence of five years to life in prison, without the possibility of probation. The sentencing phase of the trial will continue on Wednesday.
By “sentencing phase,” it means the Dallas jury will decide where, between five and 99 years, Guyger’s sentence will be. Had she been convicted of manslaughter, the bottom of the sentence would have been between two and 20 years imprisonment. So the bottom of the sentencing range differs by three years, from two to five.
Is there a “right” place for Guyger to be sentenced here? Surely, the murder of Botham Jean is an unimaginable tragedy, but that only influences one aspect of the concerns in sentencing, and in this extremely peculiar scenario, is of little weight. No sentence can undo the tragedy and bring back a man who should be alive, thriving and enjoying some ice cream on his couch in his own apartment tonight. Much as there’s a visceral sense of “justice” playing out by being harsh to Guyger, the lack of malicious intent tempers even that fury.
Is the right sentence five years? More? Less? The law provides that five years is the minimum allowed, and given her lack of purpose in harming Botham Jean in particular, or even a random black man in what she unreasonably believed to be her apartment, one would be hard pressed to condemn her to a more severe sentence as it serves no legitimate purpose and punishes her for a tragic, if needless, mistake.
But would it have been better to convict her of manslaughter so that she could be sentenced to two years rather than five? Some may see an effective difference between two and five. Some will see the minimum as far too lenient, as this was murder, and murder is bad, and we, as a society, have been indoctrinated into connecting “justice” with harshness for its own sake.
There is no effective difference between two and five years as far as the legitimate goals of sentencing are concerned. Obviously, five is longer, but what will it accomplish that two will not? Amber Guyger has been fired from her job as a Dallas cop. She has been put through the rigors of trial. She will forever be known as a murderer. These are not insignificant consequences.
She will go to prison, assuming the conviction is not reversed, and there does not appear to be any facial reason to suspect it will. She will emerge at least five years later as an ex-con, a murderer and a societal pariah. To the extent convictions and sentences serve any deterrent effect, the message to cops is that even they cannot mistakenly enter an innocent person’s apartment and kill the innocent man.
The minimum sentence should be imposed, but only because the crime was murder, as it had to be. Otherwise, even the minimum sentence is more than necessary to serve any legitimate purpose. But law is a blunt weapon, sentencing is voodoo and each of us holds our own idiosyncratic view of what constitutes “justice.”