DALLAS (AP) — The same United States (US) jury that convicted a white Dallas police officer in the fatal shooting of her black neighbour returned to court yesterday to consider her sentence — a penalty that could be anywhere from five years to life in prison.
Amber Guyger, who said she mistook the man’s apartment for her own, which was directly below, was convicted of murder in a verdict that drew tears of relief from his family and chants of “black lives matter” from a crowd outside the courtroom.
Guyger sat alone, weeping, at the defence table.
Her defence attorneys can argue that she deserves a light sentence because she acted out of confusion and fear that she had found an intruder in her home. Prosecutors have given no indication in court of the sentence they will seek. Attorneys are under a gag order.
It was unclear how long the punishment phase of the trial would last. Testimony began on Tuesday after the verdict, starting with Botham Jean’s friends and family, who explained how his death affected them.
First on the stand was Allison Jean, who said her son was killed just before he was to turn 27.
“My life has not been the same. It’s just been like a roller coaster. I can’t sleep, I cannot eat. It’s just been the most terrible time for me,” she said. Botham Jean’s sister, Allisa Findley, told the jury that she and her mother cry a lot. Her formerly “bubbly” younger brother has retreated as if into a shell, and her father is “not the same”.
“It’s like the light behind his eyes is off,” Findley said. She said her children are now afraid of police.
Prosecutors submitted text messages that indicated Guyger lacks sensitivity towards black people. In one, she suggested participants at a Martin Luther King Jr Day parade in Dallas could be persuaded to go home with the use of physical violence and pepper spray.
In a message sent to Guyger’s phone, the messenger suggests she would like a German shepherd because the dog is racist. Guyger declares that she hates “everything and everyone but y’all”.
The basic facts of the unusual shooting were not in dispute throughout the trial. Guyger said that after a long shift at work and still in uniform, she walked up to Jean’s apartment — which was on the fourth floor, directly above hers on the third — and found the door unlocked. She said she thought the apartment was her own when she drew her service weapon and entered.
Accountant from the Caribbean island nation of St Lucia Jean had been eating a bowl of ice cream when Guyger fired.
The shooting drew widespread attention because of the strange circumstances and because it was one in a string of shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers. The verdict was “a victory for black people in America,” said Lee Merritt, one of the lawyers for Jean’s family. “It’s a signal that the tide is going to change here. Police officers are going to be held accountable for their actions, and we believe that will begin to change policing culture around the world.”
The jury was largely made up of women and people of colour.
Attorney Ben Crump, also representing the family, credited the makeup of the jury with Tuesday’s conviction, and said he expects them to deliver a weighty sentence. “I look at this jury. And I look at the diversity of this jury,” he said. “They will see past all the technical, intellectual justifications for an unjustifiable killing. And I believe they will do the right thing.”
Dallas Police Association President Mike Mata declined to comment on Tuesday, saying Guyger’s lawyers asked him to wait until after sentencing. The group, which represents city police officers, has paid for Guyger’s legal defence and security.
The verdict may have defused tensions that began simmering on Monday when jurors were told they could consider whether Guyger had a right to use deadly force under a Texas law known as the castle doctrine — even though she was not in her own home. The law is similar to “stand your ground” measures across the US that declare a person has no duty to retreat from an intruder.
In a frantic 911 call played repeatedly during the trial, Guyger said “I thought it was my apartment” nearly 20 times. Her lawyers argued that the identical physical appearance of the apartment complex from floor to floor frequently led to tenants going to the wrong apartments.
But prosecutors questioned how Guyger could have missed numerous signs that she was in the wrong place. They also asked why she did not call for backup and suggested she was distracted by explicit phone messages with her police partner.
Guyger, 31, was arrested three days after the killing. She was later fired and charged with murder.
Tension has been high during the trial in Dallas, where five police officers were killed in an attack three years ago.