Amber Guyger got off easy.
Amber Guyger got what she deserved.
It’s easy to be in either camp — or, for the truly ambivalent, be in both camps at once.
One thing is certain: Botham Jean is dead. Guyger killed him by accident, she says, but at best there appears to be considerable carelessness involved.
Which only brings up the very troubling question: Would she have made that mistake if Jean had not been black and she were not white?
Jean, 26, an accountant and native of St. Lucia, was relaxing after work in his Dallas apartment when Guyger, 30, a Dallas police officer, walked in and shot him.
Guyger, who lived in the same building but on a different floor, told authorities she mistakenly had entered Jean’s apartment, thinking it was her own. When she saw Jean, she said, she thought he was an intruder and shot him in the chest.
The story quickly went viral on national news and the web, partly because of the tantalizing racial angle.
With that, cue the news networks, the pundits, the politicians and the community activists chanting, “No justice, no peace!” Put Jean’s name alongside Laquan McDonald of Chicago; Walter Scott in North Charleston; Freddie Gray in Baltimore; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; and other black men who have died in questionable encounters with police.
But this case also was tougher than those others. There was no controversy connected to Botham’s name before his death. He hadn’t been stopped by police on the street or driving his car. He was quietly eating ice cream in his own home.
Yet, successful prosecutions of police officers are rare, civil libertarians and police brutality specialists say. Guyger’s tearful remorse also made her an exceptionally sympathetic figure, perhaps too sympathetic, many reasoned, for the jury to find her guilty of murder instead of, say, knocking the charge down to manslaughter.
Jurors also were allowed to consider her Castle Doctrine defense, which allows homeowners in some states, including Texas, to stand their ground and shoot intruders — even though in this case the “castle” turned out to be somebody else’s home.
She didn’t get off that easy, although it could have been worse. Guyger was sentenced to 10 years, eligible for parole after five.
The average sentence for an on-duty officer convicted of murder is about 12 years, Philip Stinson, a legal expert on police shootings, told The Dallas Morning News. Stinson, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, said that although Guyger was off duty at the time of Jean’s shooting, her sentence was similar to those handed down for officers convicted of murders committed while on duty.
But the drama of Guyger’s sentencing was almost upstaged by a surprising display of compassion for her by Brandt Jean, Botham’s 18-year-old brother.
“I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want for you,” he said, addressing his victim impact statement toward her. “I love you as a person, and I don’t wish anything bad on you.”
He told Guyger that he didn’t even want her to go to prison. Then he asked for permission to give her a hug. Guyger responded by rushing across the courtroom to join him in a big, long hug.
Then the judge, Tammy Kemp, who also is African American, also gave her a hug and a Bible.
The poignant scene coming across national television and computer screens reminded me of the survivors and victims’ families of the mass shooting by a white supremacist at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, killing nine and wounding three others in 2015.
Such expressions of forgiveness after the Charleston shooting and in Dallas received a mixed response from black community leaders and residents.
“What white people are really asking for when they demand forgiveness from a traumatized community is absolution,” wrote Roxane Gay in The New York Times about why she could not forgive Dylann Roof, the Charleston killer.
“They want absolution from the racism that infects us all, even though forgiveness cannot reconcile America’s racist sins. They want absolution from their silence in the face of all manner of racism, great and small. I, for one, am done forgiving.”
She’s not alone. I do not easily forgive killers such as Guyger or Roof, either, unless they show that they understand the error of their ways and are willing and ready to change themselves for the better. Guyger, at least, appears ready, but first she must serve her sentence. Forgiveness can help us all to find peace. But there must also be justice.