A former Dallas police officer convicted of murder in the fatal shooting of a black neighbor in his own home could be sentenced to as little as two years in prison, a judge ruled at a sentencing hearing Wednesday.
Amber Guyger, who fatally shot Botham Jean a year ago as he ate a bowl of ice cream, normally would face a sentence ranging from five years to 99 years. But Judge Tammy Kemp ruled the jury can consider a “sudden passion” defense that could reduce a sentence.
Kemp made the ruling at the behest of the defense – with the support of prosecutors.
Guyger, who is white, had testified at trial that she returned from an extended police shift and incorrectly believed she had entered her own apartment. She said she panicked when she saw Jean, an accountant from St. Lucia who she had never met. Guyger, 31, shot Jean, 26, with her service weapon.
Jean family lawyer S. Lee Merritt said the verdict should have been expected but that convictions of white officers who kill unarmed black men are rare. The community had been “on pins and needles” awaiting the decision, Merritt said.
“It’s a signal that the tide is going to change,” he said of the verdict from the predominantly non-white jury. “Police officers are going to be held accountable for their actions.”
Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was convicted of murder in a neighbor’s shooting. (Photo: AP)
Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, who is black, was less certain. He called the conviction “a small step toward justice for Botham Jean and his family” but noted that all their lives have been changed forever.
“Justice will never fully be served until we as a country address the systemic failure in our criminal justice system and rightfully prosecute the spate of unjustified shootings of black men and boys in this country,” Veasey said.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson lauded the jury for convicting Guyger despite a judge’s order that they consider the state’s “Castle Doctrine,” a law similar to stand-your-ground laws that allows use of force, including deadly force, when someone believes their home, property or life are being threatened.
“We’re one step closer to seeing justice for our brother #BothamJean,” Johnson tweeted. “While the judge introduced a form of #StandYourGround on behalf of the killer #AmberGuyger, we applaud the jury for holding her accountable with a guilty verdict.”
Testimony in the sentencing phase began Tuesday, with Jean’s mother, Allison, saying her life has not been the same since her son’s death.
“It’s just been like a roller coaster. I can’t sleep, I cannot eat,” she said. “It’s just been the most terrible time for me.”
Botham Jean’s father, Bertrum, testified Wednesday that his son called his family back home every Sunday. Now his Sundays are “destroyed,” Bertrum Jean said.
“Such a sweet boy. He tried his best to live a good honest life,” Jean told the court through tears. “He loved God. He loved everyone. How could this happen to him?”
Prosecutors showed the jury text messages from Guyger’s cellphone that hint at insensitivity toward black people.
On Wednesday, defense witnesses testified, starting with Guyger’s mother, Karen Guyger, who testified her daughter was sexually abused as a child. Former colleagues also testified – Officer Cathy Odhiambo, who is black, describing Amber Guyger, who is white, as “the sweetest person.”
The jury took only hours to render the verdict after six days of testimony. It was not clear how long the sentencing phase would take.
During her trial, Guyger said she had parked on the wrong level of her apartment building’s parking garage by mistake and walked down a corridor to the apartment directly above hers, thinking it was her own. She became worried when she noticed the door was unlocked, she said. Prosecutors said that was when Guyger should have called for backup.
Instead, Guyger testified that she feared for her safety and shot Jean when he failed to obey her command to put his hands up.
Guyger called 911 after the shooting. She can be heard repeatedly apologizing to Jean and saying she thought she was in her own apartment. Guyger was arrested days after the shooting and subsequently fired by the Dallas Police Department.
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz; The Associated Press