Updated at 2:25 p.m. ET
A Dallas jury has found former police Officer Amber Guyger guilty of murder for fatally shooting a neighbor who lived in the apartment directly above hers last year. She had testified that she entered Botham Jean’s unit after a long day at work, thinking it was her own home and that he was an intruder.
The jury took five hours to decide Guyger had committed murder, rather than a lesser charge of manslaughter. Jurors were to begin considering sentencing options Tuesday afternoon. Guyger faces a possible punishment of five to 99 years in prison.
She is the first Dallas police officer to be convicted of murder since the 1970s.
Prosecutors maintained that Guyger, who is white, committed murder when she overlooked signs that the apartment she entered wasn’t her own — the wrong floor, the smell of marijuana coming from the apartment, a bright red doormat — and shot Jean, a 26-year-old black accountant who was sitting in his living room eating ice cream when Guyger killed him last September.
“There was no other floor mat like this is the entire building. This sticks out, literally, like a red thumb,” lead prosecutor Jason Hermus said during closing arguments Monday, displaying the doormat to the jury. “And she walked up to it and stood on top of it.”
“I was scared whoever was inside my apartment was going to kill me,” she told the jury. “No police officer would want to hurt an innocent person.”
Guyger lived on the third floor of an apartment complex just south of downtown Dallas. Her lawyers said she was in uniform and had just finished a 13-hour workday on Sept. 6th, 2018, when she mistakenly opened Jean’s door.
“What was going through Amber’s mind was just, ‘I’m going home,’ ” defense lawyer Robert Rogers said. ” ‘I’m exhausted, and I’m going home.’ ”
Guyger testified that she had put her key in the door and realized it was unlocked. Thinking someone had broken in, she drew her gun and entered the apartment.
Guyger said she ordered Jean, “Let me see your hands,” and that he instead started to move toward her. Prosecutors countered that nobody in the apartment complex heard her instruct Jean to raise his hands.
Within seconds of opening the door, she fired two shots at Jean. One of the bullets struck him in the chest, killing him.
Guyger called 911 and told the operator over and over: “I thought it was my apartment.”
The case transfixed observers around the country for the delicate questions it presented. Was the shooting a noncriminal accident equal to a “tragic mistake,” as Guyger’s lawyers argued? Or were Guyger’s mistakes so reckless that they constituted manslaughter, or so intentional that it amounted to murder?
In deciding that she was guilty, the jury, about half of whom were African American, sided with the prosecution’s argument for murder.
Under Texas law, convicting a defendant of murder requires proving someone intentionally killed another person, as opposed to manslaughter, in which prosecutors have to show someone was killed because of recklessness.
Some have described the facts of the case as the latest example of a white police officer killing an unarmed black man. Civil rights groups rallied behind Jean, a native of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. And many police officers came to the defense of Guyger, who was fired nearly three weeks after the shooting.
During her testimony, Guyger seemed to cast aside race as a factor. The encounter was “not about hate,” she said. “It’s about being scared.”
To prosecutors, Guyger’s distraction led to a crime.
Just before Guyger entered Jean’s apartment, she had a 16-minute phone conversation with a fellow officer, Martin Rivera. Authorities say the two had a romantic relationship and that they had been swapping sexually explicit messages.
Prosecutors argued that Guyger was so absorbed with those communications that she was too preoccupied to realize she was heading toward the wrong apartment.
In cross-examining Guyger, prosecutors emphasized that her training as a police officer should have informed her to back away from the door, hide and call for backup if she had suspected an intruder.
Guyger had her police radio, and she lives just two blocks from police headquarters, so she could have had other officers arrive quickly, prosecutors pointed out. Had she done that, Guyger was asked, might Jean be alive today?
“Yes, sir,” she said.
Before jurors began their deliberations Monday, Texas District Judge Tammy Kemp allowed them to consider what is known as the “castle doctrine” as a possible defense, despite the objections of prosecutors who called the move “absurd.”
Similar to self-defense laws known as “stand your ground,” the Texas statute says a person is justified in using deadly force if someone enters or attempts to enter a person’s own home.
“It may have been a stretch for Judge Kemp to allow that jury to consider it,” Tim Powers, a former Texas prosecutor and judge, told NPR.
The judge’s decision raised a unique set of legal facts that experts said has not been tested in Texas courts: considering a “castle doctrine” defense in a location that is not one’s “castle.”
“This is a case of first impression, which means we don’t have any precedents of this where the mistake of fact defense merges with the castle doctrine,” said Peter Schulte, a Texas defense lawyer and former prosecutor.
But in the end, the jury rejected the controversial use of that legal standard as a possible defense. Both Powers and Schulte think the issue will be raised during Guyger’s expected appeal.
In the state’s closing arguments on Monday, prosecutor Hermus said the only way a defendant can claim self-defense to murder is when there is no other reasonable alternative.
Hermus said that was not the case when Guyger shot Jean.
“Self-defense means you’re acting defensively,” Hermus said. “She became the aggressor. That’s not self-defense.”