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Law & the Courts

With the Guyger Verdict, a Texas Jury Chips Away at the Unwritten Law That Helps Bad Cops Go Free

Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger arrives at the Frank Crowley Courts Building, where she is charged in the killing of Botham Jean in his own home, in Dallas, Texas, October 1, 2019. (Jeremy Lock/Reuters)

Earlier today, a Dallas jury convicted former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger of murder after she mistakenly entered the wrong apartment and shot dead its rightful occupant — a young black man named Botham Jean. The verdict came in spite of an incredibly puzzling jury instruction permitting Guyger to argue that Texas’s “Castle Doctrine” could apply to her actions. Under the Castle Doctrine, the use of force is presumed reasonable if another person is “unlawfully and with force entering or attempting to enter your occupied home, car, or place of business.” Yet Guyger was the armed person unlawfully entering Jean’s home. He had the right to shoot Guyger. She had no right to shoot him.

The jury’s verdict is significant — and not just because justice was done in this dreadful case. It’s a small data point that some juries in some jurisdictions may well be rejecting a classic police defense that’s been used to help bad officers escape accountability for unjustified shootings. In jurisdiction after jurisdiction, the written law requires officers to show that they used deadly force based on a “reasonable” belief that the suspect presented a risk of inflicting deadly force or serious bodily harm. Yet in jurisdiction after jurisdiction, juries have followed a different, unwritten code — that virtually any expression of fear by a cop justifies a shooting. As I’ve argued before, clever defense lawyers twist the legal standard into a line of argument that goes something like this: The officer was afraid, and she can explain to you the reasons why she was afraid. Therefore, it was reasonable that she was afraid.

By granting enormous deference to an officer’s fear, juries can reach nonsense results — like when it hung in the first trial of South Carolina officer Michael Slager after he shot an unarmed fleeing man in the back. (Slager testified that he had “total fear” that the suspect “was coming towards me.”) Or like when a jury acquitted the officer who shot Philando Castile as Castile tried his best to follow the officer’s conflicting and confused instructions. In that case, the officer actually said that his fear was based in part on the fact that Castile exposed a child to secondhand smoke. No, really. He stated, “I thought I was gonna die and I thought if he’s, if has the, the guts and the audacity to smoke marijuana in front of a five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke and the front-seat passenger doing the same thing then what, what care does he give about me?”

Make no mistake, Guyger tried the fear defense. She said she felt “pure fear” when she opened the door on a man eating ice cream on his own couch. She declared that she was “scared he was going to kill me.” But nothing about that fear was reasonable. The reasonable course of action was to immediately leave the wrong apartment, profusely apologizing all the while. Her course of action was to immediately open fire on an unarmed man.

No serious person argues that juries should be biased against cops. Indeed, it’s vital that they understand the full scope of the risks inherent in lawful encounters when rendering verdicts. But for too long juries have demonstrated bias for police officers, applying a level of grace and deference far beyond what the law permits. Today’s verdict in Texas isn’t just an act of justice, it’s a vital correction to a culture that has sometimes allowed men and women in uniform to abide by a lower standard of behavior than applies to the average citizen of the United States.


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