Local Dallas Fox News reports that former police officer Amber Guyger was indicted yesterday by a grand jury on the charge of murder for the shooting death of Botham Jean. This is a bump up from her arrest charge of manslaughter. Guyger shot and killed Jean in his own apartment, purportedly because she mistakenly believed she’d stumbled upon an intruder in her own apartment on the floor below.
A conviction on the charge of manslaughter would have carried a sentence of up to 20 years. A conviction on the charge of murder, however, means life in prison. As I say in class, a manslaughter conviction is no picnic, unless the alternative you’re looking at is a murder conviction.
There is only one legal issue, and only two factual questions, that really control the outcome in this case (from a legal perspective–I don’t claim to have any political expertise).
The first question is: Had the shooting actually taken place in Guyger’s own apartment, and Jean was a genuine intruder upon whom Guyger stumbled, under poor lighting conditions and with Jean unresponsive to her commands, would she have been lawfully justified in shooting him?
The answer is probably “yes,” (although Guyger would not have been likely to have qualified for the “legal presumption of reasonable fear of deadly attack” provision of Texas law that exists in the context of highly-defensible property, such as one’s habitation.)
If the answer to the first question is “yes,” the second question is: Was Guyger’s entry into Jean’s apartment an act that qualifies as criminally reckless? Or, conversely, was Guyger’s mistaken entry into Jean’s apartment a reasonable mistake under the circumstances?
Keep in mind, the law doesn’t require us to make perfect use-of-force decisions, it requires us to make reasonable use-of-force decisions. Mistakes are perfectly acceptable, legally, if the mistakes are reasonable.
The jury in this case will be tasked with evaluating both (1) do they believe that Guyger had a genuine, good faith belief that she was walking into her own apartment, and (2) was that belief one that would have been held by a reasonable and prudent person under the circumstances (including such factors as poor lighting, the fact that she’d just completed a 14-hour shift, that her key-card appeared to function normally to open the door, etc.).
Again, the defense doesn’t need to prove the reasonableness of Guyger’s mistake in order to obtain an acquittal–the prosecution needs to disprove the reasonableness of Guyger’s mistake, and they need to do so beyond a reasonable doubt, and they must convince the jury unanimously.
So far the facts on this case, including many small but critically important facts (was Jean’s door partially ajar when Guyger used her key to ‘open’ it?) are in dispute, with multiple versions being reported in the press. I look forward to seeing a less confused body of facts as the case progresses.
It’s also important to keep in mind that it is entirely legally irrelevant to this case that Jean was doing absolutely nothing wrong. One doesn’t need to deserve to be shot and killed in order for that killing to be lawfully justified. What controls is whether the shooter had a reasonable perception of an imminent deadly force threat, period. (Cops and lawyers often refer to these kinds of cases as “awful, but lawful.”)
If the jury concludes that Guyger would have been entitled to use deadly force against Jean had she been in her own apartment, and if the prosecution fails to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Guyger’s mistaken entry into Jean’s apartment was criminally negligent, an acquittal would be the appropriate verdict in this case.
Attorney Andrew Branca Law of Self Defense LLC
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