Cross-posted with permission from Truthout.
The overt contradictions in Dallas police officer Amber Guyger’s story about how and why she shot Botham Shem Jean, a 26-year-old Black man, in his own apartment September 6 would leave anyone with even a rudimentary set of reasoning skills in doubt.
First, we heard from anonymous police sources that after parking on the wrong floor of her apartment complex and arriving at Jean’s door, mistaking it for her own (despite his bright red floor mat), she entered his apartment easily because the door was unlocked. Later, we heard that, actually, Guyger inserted her electronic key and struggled with the lock, putting down several items she was holding to continue wrestling with it before Jean opened the door himself.
Finally, a version was settled on: Guyger says that Jean’s door was already slightly ajar, so when she inserted the electronic key, it pushed the door open. She alleges that she then entered Jean’s dark apartment and saw his silhouette across the room, thinking she was being burglarized. She drew her gun, gave “verbal commands” that she says Jean “ignored” and shot him twice, once in the torso, according to the Texas Rangers arrest warrant affidavit.
But at least two of Jean’s neighbors at the apartment complex demonstrated and confirmed to The Intercept’s Shaun King that the apartment doors at the complex do not readily hang ajar, but rather, swing shut. Further, even the Dallas Police Department’s (DPD) own search warrant contradicts Guyger’s account. Instead, it accuses Jean of directly confronting Guyger, reporting that a witness heard “an exchange of words, immediately followed by at least two gunshots.” The DPD also has it that Jean was right at the door, rather than across the room.
This set of mind-bogglingly contradictory accounts is one of the reasons that thinking people in Dallas-Fort Worth are fuming in the streets, demanding Guyger be charged with murder and fired from the force. (On September 9, Guyger was arrested on manslaughter charges and was released after a little more than an hour on $300,000 bail.) The DPD’s response to their protests? Balls of pepper spray.
Jean’s family has spoken out about authorities’ highly irregular handling of the case. Jean’s mother, Allison Jean, called on the department to “come clean.” The family has expressed frustration with how officials have juggled the case: handing it from the DPD to the Texas Rangers and most recently, to the Dallas County district attorney’s office—apparently in a trust-building exercise lost on the public.
The family has turned to local attorney S. Lee Merritt, who is now running his own concurrent investigation. He recently told reporters that two witnesses overheard knocking and one witness immediately adjacent to Jean’s apartment heard a woman’s voice saying, “Let me in,” before the shooting. More critically, Merritt told CNN that there had been noise complaints registered at the apartment complex that came from the “immediate downstairs neighbor,” which would have been Guyger’s third-floor apartment, and that there had been a noise complaint “that very day.” The existence of noise complaints may provide an ulterior motive for the shooting.
Attacking Jean’s Character
As this information was punching holes in Guyger’s questionable accounts, the DPD was busy attempting to assassinate Jean’s character to shore her up. Even as Jean was being laid to rest [last] Thursday, Dallas police released a public record showing that, rather than searching the apartment of a supposedly disoriented officer, who, by their own accounts, was behaving nothing short of bizarrely the night of September 6, they instead found 10.4 grams of marijuana on the victim’s kitchen counter. (Police tested Guyger’s blood for drugs and alcohol but have not made the results public.)
“To have my son smeared in such a way,” said Allison Jean Friday, “I think shows that the persons who are really nasty, who are really dirty and are going to cover up for the devil, Amber Guyger.”
Authorities are likely feeling the pressure to mount a smear campaign in order to get Guyger off the hook. While in the past, a police officer’s acquittal might be taken for granted, Dallas’s police are fresh off the heels of the conviction and sentencing in August of former Balch Springs officer Roy Oliver in the police-perpetrated shooting of 15-year-old Jordan Edwards.
Jean, like Edwards, was an exceptionally sympathetic and virtuous character. A 26-year-old from Saint Lucia in the Caribbean, Jean visited orphanages, ministered to the sick, and worked with vulnerable youth during his time there, according to his mother. He moved to Dallas and worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers after graduating from Harding University in Arkansas in 2016. Many have heard his beautifully warm voice after videos of his singing at the Dallas West Church of Christ went viral.
Merritt told Truthout that the language of the search warrant “shows the purpose of the investigation from the beginning was to find evidence to incriminate the victim and exonerate the shooter. So as evidence comes in, it seems to absolve Ms. Guyger of any real liability. Of course, that’s the evidence they’re able to gather, because that was their goal from the beginning: to assassinate the character of Botham and to exculpate Ms. Guyger.”
Merritt recalled that the same kinds of police tactics were used against the similarly sympathetic Edwards, saying the police initially offered another “highly implausible false narrative” about the car hurtling toward Oliver, who had to act “heroically” by filling the car with bullets to protect his fellow officers. In that case, too, the police “hunted all night for a gun that they believed the boys may have thrown out of the car,” Merritt said, and initially investigated Jordan’s older brothers as criminals.
“That all turned out to be false, and the reason I believe it turned out to be false is because—and this is sad—is because of the character of the person he ended up killing. Jordan was seen as somebody deserving of justice,” Merritt said. He noted the system’s tendency to favor “exceptional” victims—those who appear extremely sympathetic in the public eye—particularly when it comes to Black victims (most of whom are afforded no measure of justice).
Merritt highlighted another case he’s currently working on in North Texas that occurred a week before Jean’s murder: the police-perpetrated shooting of 21-year-old O’Shea Terry, who was shot as he drove away from an Arlington, Texas, police officer who had his arm in Terry’s car window. Body-worn camera footage contradicted an officer’s claim that he pulled out his gun to somehow dislodge his arm from the window, showing instead that the officer stuck his arm in the car as Terry was rolling up the window and driving away, and then shot him several times.
“That story was kind of swept away with this [Jean] incident, but O’Shea Terry [has] a criminal record, so the fact that deadly force was used against him is ‘OK,’” Merritt told Truthout. “He was killed the same way Jordan Edwards was killed. Roy Oliver didn’t want the car Jordan Edwards was traveling in to leave. He wanted to stop and question it. He couldn’t, so he shot it up. Same thing as O’Shea Terry … but he’s not the kind of Black deserving of justice” in the eyes of state’s current criminal punishment system, in which victims are unjustly divided into “good” and “bad,” deserving and undeserving.
Merritt and a crowd of more than 100 protesters openly challenged that system Sunday night, protesting on behalf of both Jean and Terry at the AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Nine protesters were arrested after breaking off from the larger march associated with Merritt and blocking the roadway around the stadium.
Merritt told Truthout the Jean family has been frustrated with the local media’s coverage of Jean’s shooting, saying mainstream reporters have aided and abetted the police department’s smear campaign. Writing at D Magazine, Dallas-based journalist Barrett Brown provides a useful roadmap to the ways in which local coverage has deferred to authorities’ narrative.
“They are trying not be upset about [the coverage],” Merritt told Truthout. “We spend a lot of time celebrating who Botham Shem Jean actually was. So, they’re trying to keep that image in their head, but it’s difficult when media is complicit in law enforcement’s attempt to assassinate his character in order to justify his murder.”
Meanwhile, few reporters have focused on Guyger’s own character. While she and her family quickly erased their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram profiles in the days after the shooting, Guyger’s Pinterest account has recently surfaced, revealing troubling, albeit typical, aspects of her own police-oriented disposition. The account contains a meme critical of the Black Lives Matter movement and supportive of law enforcement: “When the Police RIOT for the death of a brother …. They do it with CLASS.” Another meme that didn’t age well: “PEOPLE ARE SO UNGRATEFUL. No one ever thanks me for having the patience not to kill them.”
Irregularities mark Guyger’s case from top to bottom, including atypical police procedures during her booking into the Kaufman County Jail, her last-minute manslaughter charges, the volleying of the investigation between law enforcement entities and lastly, the overwhelming sympathy for her story in her own charging documents.
As Dallas-area defense attorneys have noted, the language of the probable cause affidavit for Guyger’s manslaughter charge seems to have been carefully written to legally shield her. Probable cause affidavits are typically written to justify and support the arrest of a criminal defendant. In Guyger’s case, however, Stephen Le Brocq told Law&Crime, the affidavit “is written such that, one would question why a warrant was even issued.”
Victims’ Virtuousness on Trial
Oliver’s 15-year sentence is the second conviction obtained by prosecutors in Dallas County this year in police-perpetrated shooting deaths. Former Farmer’s Branch police officer Ken Johnson’s 10-year sentence in January for fatally shooting 16-year-old Jose Cruz broke a 45-year paradigm in Dallas County, which had not seen a criminal conviction against an officer in a police-perpetrated shooting death since former Dallas police officer Darrell L. Cain fatally shot 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez in 1973, sparking an uprising in the city.
Cain was sentenced to five years in prison, and got out on parole in only two-and-a-half years. The family never received an official apology from the city of Dallas, only an informal apology from Mayor Mike Rawlings, according to Cynthia Cordova, who is caregiver to Santos’s mother, Bessie, and a friend and spokesperson of the Rodriguez family.
Cordova agreed that convictions in the county shouldn’t only occur in cases involving very young boys or victims who are perceived as extremely virtuous. Pointing to the cases of Rodriguez, Cruz, and Edwards, she recently asked, “What happened to those [victims] in between?” Less sympathetic cases tend not to make the national news, let alone lead to convictions. “They just fell through the cracks, or [the police and district attorney] just didn’t care,” Cordova recently told Truthout.
The dynamic of convictions in Dallas County may mean there’s a chance that Guyger will be convicted, because Jean’s spotless record mirrors those of the young boys whose shootings resulted in officer convictions. Being able to portray Jean as anything other than saintly is absolutely critical for authorities hoping to shield a fellow officer.
Meanwhile, Merritt is working toward filing a civil lawsuit sometime this week as his team continues to gather its own evidence.
“We’re seeing the additional importance of having our own investigators, our own ballistics teams, etc., going back and doing some of the work with the limited information we have access to, because obviously we don’t have the subpoena or warrant power that the state has,” he told Truthout. “Some of the key witnesses … don’t believe in the veracity of the state’s investigation or the city’s investigation, so they’d rather give information to us, which we then turn over to the district attorney’s office.”
Still, more evidence may be on the way from city investigators that could pose problems for Guyger’s narrative: The district attorney’s office obtained a search warrant to seize Guyger’s own electronic lock. The crucial data contained inside could reveal whether she unlocked her door and entered before going to Jean’s apartment. Investigators likewise are in the process of downloading the data from Jean’s electronic lock.