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On Wednesday, former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the murder of her neighbor Botham Jean. Guyger said she had accidently entered Jean's apartment thinking it was her own and shot him because she believed he was an intruder.
Guyger had faced a sentence of up to 99 years after the jury convicted her for murder, rather than the lesser charge of manslaughter. During the hearing, Jean's brother Brant told Guyger "I forgive you" before hugging her. The judge in the case also hugged Guyger and gave her a Bible after the sentencing.
Why there’s debate
Some activists celebrated the guilty verdict as a sign that the Black Lives Matter movement has made progress in creating accountability in deadly police shootings. “This is a victory for black people in America,” the Jean family's attorney said. Guyger’s relatively short sentence, some countered, showed how much leeway white police officers have in the criminal justice system.
Others argued that it was inappropriate to treat this case as a proxy for other police shootings like those of Michael Brown and Philando Castile, since Guyger was not on duty at the time. The specter of those incidents may have caused Guyger to receive harsher treatment, some argue.
The decisions the judge and Jean’s brother to embrace Guyger also led to discussion of the role of forgiveness and whether white defendants are treated more sympathetically. The Dallas County district attorney called it a “an extraordinary act of healing and forgiveness.” Others lamented the hugs, with one writer worrying they would be treated “as a proxy for meaningful, lasting justice.”
Jean’s family filed a lawsuit against the city of Dallas last year, saying that police department policies predisposed Guyger to using deadly force rather than safely de-escalating the situation. “The city of Dallas needs to clean up inside,” Jean’s mother said after the sentencing. That suit had been on hold, but may resume now that the criminal case has been resolved. Amber Guyger will be eligible for parole after serving five years.
The guilty verdict shows that the efforts of Black Lives Matter are working.
"...this guilty verdict sends a resounding message that black and brown lives do matter, and that no one is above the law. It is a step in the right direction as we continue to fight for police accountability, criminal justice reform and equality." — Al Sharpton, New York Daily News
The conviction shows that police officers are starting to be treated as normal citizens under the law.
“No serious person argues that juries should be biased against cops. But for too long juries have demonstrated bias for police officers, applying a level of grace and deference far beyond what the law permits.” — David French, National Review
Guyger’s race and job led to a harsher sentence.
“I can’t help but feel that in this instance, Guyger’s chosen profession doomed her at trial. She made a horrible, incomprehensible, unfathomable mistake. An innocent man paid with his life. But the case of Jean’s death was ultimately a mistake, one that someone of a different skin hue or serving in a different profession may very well have been forgiven.” — James Gagliano, Washington Examiner
The uncommon racial makeup of the jury played a major role.
“This exceptional verdict is due in no small part to a diverse jury pool — many of whom shared a racial background with Botham Jean. Of the 12 jurors and four alternates, seven were black, five were non-black people of color, and four were white. … Which brings us to the obvious question: Would a whiter jury have convicted Amber Guyger of murder? I fear the answer is no.” — Brittany Packnett, Vox
The unique circumstances of the case make it difficult to compare with other police shootings.
“It’s not clear if Guygers murder conviction will have an impact on the policing community — especially because Guyger was off duty at the time of the shooting, and the circumstances were unique.” — Darran Simon and Holly Yan, CNN
Guyger received a level of sympathy in sentencing that people of color rarely see.
“I’m not arguing for harsher sentencing. I’m not arguing for less compassionate courtrooms. I am saying that who gets harsh sentencing and who gets a break, with hugs & Bibles from judges & hair petted on by the police falls suspiciously down lines of race & privilege.”
— Activist Shaun King
It was inappropriate for the judge to hug Guyger.
“How Botham Jean’s brother chooses to grieve is his business. He’s entitled to that. But this judge choosing to hug this woman is unacceptable. Keep in mind this convicted murderer is the same one who laughed about Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, and killing ppl on sight.”
— Atlantic staff writer Jemele Hill
Anything other than a conviction would have been a miscarriage of justice.
“The verdict is in some sense a relief, because had it gone the other way it would be hard to say just how poor an officer’s judgment has to be before she can be held fully accountable for such an outrageous misuse of deadly force.” — Editorial, Los Angeles Times
Forgiveness from Jean’s family does not mean all the wounds are healed.
“...many correctly pointed out the complications with glorifying that act of forgiveness: That it shouldn’t invalidate the value and necessity of black rage. That it shouldn’t be taken as representative of what an entire race of people feels or ought to feel. That their act of forgiveness did not then and does not now absolve the country from dealing with white supremacy or systemic racism.” — Anne Branigin, The Root
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Tom Fox/The Dallas Morning News via Reuters, Pool