police shootings

If Amber Guyger Is Reasonable, Who Isn’t?

Amber Guyger, center, walks flanked by security while arriving for her murder trial at the Frank Crowley Courthouse in downtown Dallas.
Amber Guyger, center, walks flanked by security while arriving for her murder trial at the Frank Crowley Courthouse in downtown Dallas. Photo: LM Otero/AP/Shutterstock

The first week of Amber Guyger’s murder trial ended on Saturday with two law-enforcement officials testifying that her conduct was reasonable. On September 6, 2018, the then–Dallas police officer entered the apartment of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old black man, and shot and killed him, then told investigators that she thought it was her apartment and that Jean was an intruder. (Guyger was renting the unit below Jean’s at the time.) Guyger, who is white, was charged with manslaughter and later indicted for murder by a grand jury. Her defense hinges on convincing the judge and jurors that her actions were justified, given the circumstances. Those circumstances, according to her defenders, include her suffering from “inattentional blindness” — a temporary condition in which the brain is so focused on one task that it blocks out everything else, but one that even the psychologists who coined it admit is impossible to distinguish from lying in the context of a police-shooting defense. While so blinded, the argument goes, Guyger reasonably believed she was entering her own residence that night, not a stranger’s. If this exonerates her, it’s hard to avoid the follow-up question that logically arises: If the shooting of Botham Jean was indeed reasonable, what isn’t?

It may seem unclear, at first glance, how a case in which a person entered another person’s apartment, saw its unarmed resident watching TV and eating ice cream on the couch, then shot and killed that resident can be defended in terms of its reasonableness. But Guyger is a former police officer and a white woman who killed a black man, meaning she can expect to be given the benefit of the doubt by jurors. Guyger’s defense team has capitalized openly on her law-enforcement history; the racial angle has operated as an only slightly less glaring subtext. Both hinge on the argument that it made sense for Guyger to feel threatened by Jean. Texas Ranger David Armstrong and retired Dallas police deputy chief Craig Miller each contend that it did, with the former telling jurors that Guyger, due to her heightened stress upon confronting someone she perceived to be an intruder, may not have been perceiving the situation as she normally would, according to the Dallas Morning News. Speaking only to the judge and legal teams soon after, Miller followed by raising his “inattentional blindness” defense, claiming that Guyger was too distracted to recognize, in the moment, that she’d parked on the wrong deck and entered the wrong apartment. Judge Tammy Kemp ruled that Miller wasn’t allowed to make this argument before the actual jury. Miller did argue, though — as Armstrong had before him — that Guyger’s actions were reasonable, based on his own beliefs about what drove her behavior.

Both testimonies followed a week in which Guyger took the stand and burst into tears, prompting Judge Kemp to instruct her to compose herself before speaking further. Footage shows Guyger’s attorney respond by asking the former police officer, “How do you feel about what you did to Mr. Jean?” “I wish he was the one that took the gun and killed me,” Guyger replied through sobs. “I never wanted to take an innocent person’s life. I am so sorry.” Her remorse might be more compelling were her personal feelings not the entire crux of her argument for why killing Jean was not actually a crime. Police are routinely exonerated of wrongdoing for killing unarmed civilians on the basis that they felt scared or threatened in the moment. Paired with use-of-force standards that require officers only to “reasonably” fear for their safety before they may kill and evade legal consequences, this has become a reliable go-to defense — one whose believability often rests on the tacit belief that black men are inherently threatening. Its success is evident in nationwide charge and conviction rates for police: According to Philip Stinson, a Bowling Green University criminal-justice professor who tracks such cases, just 80 officers were charged with murder or manslaughter for killing someone while on duty between 2005 and 2017. Only 35 percent were convicted.

That Guyger was off-duty at the time may weaken her case but doesn’t necessarily derail it: Dante Servin was famously cleared of all charges by a judge in 2015 after opening fire on a group of unarmed partygoers in Chicago and killing 22-year-old Rekia Boyd. The judge exonerated the former officer on the basis that he’d been “undercharged” with involuntary manslaughter: Servin was acting intentionally when he killed Boyd, the judge reasoned, and so he would’ve had to be charged with first-degree murder for the case to stick. (Anita Alvarez, the former state’s attorney for Cook County, Illinois, who oversaw the case, was accused by many of losing on purpose to curry favor with the police.) But if nothing else, Guyger’s defense occasions a reexamination of what constitutes reasonable law-enforcement behavior. It’s worth asking — as has been done in countless other cases — whether we as Americans are truly comfortable with a standard that lets police kill whomever, whenever, as long as they claim to have been scared. It’s worth asking again whose safety is being prioritized when an officer can legally walk into your home, unbidden, and shoot you to death. The solution is not to bury Guyger under the jail to prove that she was wrong. It’s to make permanently unavailable the absurd rationale that ever allowed her to argue that she was right.

If Amber Guyger Is Reasonable, Who Isn’t?