Botham Shem Jean, a black man, was in his own apartment in Dallas last Thursday when Amber Guyger, his downstairs neighbor and an off-duty police officer, shot him inside his own apartment. One week after the shooting, those are the only details that are certain.
Everything else remains a mystery.
Jean was not accused or suspected of any crime. Guyger, a four-year veteran of the Dallas Police Department, says the shooting was an accident — the tragic culmination of a series of missed warning signs that revolve around a mistaken belief that she was in her own apartment.
According to Guyger’s account, when she arrived home to the South Side Flats apartments on September 6, she didn’t realize she had gotten out on the wrong floor of her building and that the apartment she was in was not, in fact, hers. Seeing a “large silhouette” in the dark apartment, she said she thought she was being burglarized. So she shot, hitting Jean in the chest. When she turned on the lights in the apartment, she realized her mistake, CNN reported.
The family of the 26-year-old Jean disputes this, arguing that Guyger’s story doesn’t add up. And for the past week, new details in the case have only added to the confusion, raising more and more questions about what happened that night and why Jean, a St. Lucia native who moved to Dallas after graduating from school, was killed in his own home. With the public disclosure that investigators found marijuana in Jean’s apartment, his family members say law enforcement is waging a “smear campaign” to find justification in a killing where so many questions have remained unanswered.
The details of the shooting are almost hard to believe. The handling of the case so far has left community members and Jean’s family frustrated and concerned that his death will become the latest instance of a police officer being allowed to fatally shoot an unarmed black man and face no repercussion.
There are plenty of questions and few answers about the shooting
The immediate hours after the shooting raised plenty of questions about what exactly happened inside Jean’s apartment and why the shooting took place. More than one week later, much of that confusion still remains, as Dallas police and Jean’s family offer very different accounts of what happened on the night of September 6.
Efforts to understand what happened have been complicated by variations in official police documents on the case. According to the September 7 search warrant issued to collect evidence in Jean’s apartment, Dallas officers said that Guyger, unaware that she was on the building’s fourth floor instead of its third, attempted to enter the apartment with her key when Jean opened his front door. “A neighbor stated he heard an exchange of words, immediately followed by at least two gunshots,” the warrant noted. This account suggests Jean was shot at his front door.
But the details of a September 9 arrest affidavit filed after Guyger turned herself in to police are quite different. That affidavit says Jean was actually shot farther into his apartment. In that account, which was written after an interview with Guyger, the officer returned home after her shift, unaware of the floor she was on, and attempted to use an electronic key to open the apartment front door. However, the door was slightly ajar, and the force of using her key pushed the door open, despite the fact that her key did not open the lock.
Guyger then entered the apartment and after seeing a “large silhouette” issued verbal commands and then fired twice, striking Jean in the chest. She did not realize the mistake until she turned on the lights, called 911, and checked the apartment number outside the door.
Jean’s family has disputed this account of the shooting. Attorney Lee Merritt, who is representing Jean’s family, said that he spoke to witnesses who heard Guyger knocking on the door and yelling, “Let me in,” prior to the shooting. But these accounts are not included in the police search warrant or arrest affidavit because, officers said, the witnesses did not share these details with police.
“Much of the affidavit doesn’t comport with common sense,” Merritt told CNN on Tuesday. “Certain statements are demonstratively false.”
The lack of clear answers has fueled rampant speculation, and some of it, like the possibility of a relationship between Jean and Guyger, has been swiftly dismissed by the family. A neighbor of Jean’s has also called attention to details, like a red doormat outside Jean’s door, that Merritt says should have alerted Guyger to the fact that she was at the wrong apartment. And for outside observers, one question looming over everything is why a trained officer like Guyger would be so quick to use deadly force in the first place.
Beyond the questions of what led up to the shooting and why it happened, Jean’s family and community members have raised a number of concerns about the pace of the investigation and how it is being handled. They argue that Guyger is receiving deferential treatment that a civilian suspect would not receive, noting that she was charged with manslaughter rather than murder, and that the charge did not come until three days after the shooting.
The family has also become increasingly concerned with what police are sharing about the case, particularly in the wake of recent reports highlighting that a small amount of marijuana was found in Jean’s apartment. Those reports, which came out on the day of Jean’s funeral, cited a police search warrant that had been issued in the hours after the shooting, leading Merritt to argue that police “immediately began looking to smear [Jean],” saying it is part of a pattern that has seen police departments and media position black victims as being culpable for their own deaths.
“They went in with the intent to look for some sort of criminal justification for the victim,” Merritt said Thursday, according to USA Today. “It’s a pattern that we’ve seen before ... we have a cop who clearly did something wrong. And instead of investigating the homicide — instead of going into her apartment and seeing what they can find, instead of collecting evidence relevant for the homicide investigation — they went out specifically looking for ways to tarnish the image of this young man.”
The shooting took place amid concerns some locals have with Dallas police
On Friday, the family called for Guyger’s immediate termination from the police force. “She should not be on the payroll for the city of Dallas” Merritt said, pointing to a 2017 shooting that Guyger was also involved in as additional proof that she should be removed.
The shooting puts renewed attention on the Dallas Police Department two years after a gunman shot multiple police officers during a protest in the city and made national headlines. In the days after that shooting, national outlets made much of the police department’s efforts at reform, with the Washington Post calling it a model department and praising its community policing programs.
The Botham Jean shooting has shown that these reforms, which have been accompanied by prosecutions and convictions of some officers involved in misconduct and excessive force, have not entirely erased black and brown residents’ concerns about policing in the city.
In recent days, protesters have renewed their calls for additional reforms, including changes to the local Citizen Police Review Board. They argue that the apartment shooting cannot be disconnected from other acts of police violence in the area, adding that while Jean’s death is not a scenario that immediately comes to mind when police shootings are discussed, it should still raise concerns about police accountability, racial profiling, and racial disparities in police use of force.
“We’re still dealing in an America where black people are being killed in some of the most arbitrary ways: Driving while black, walking while black — and now, we have to add living while black,” Merritt told reporters on Sunday.
We don’t yet know what legal strategy Guyger, who has been charged with manslaughter and may be indicted on more charges by a grand jury, will take. But it’s not difficult to take the use of force legal standard and think of how a lawyer would try to apply it to this case. Yes, Guyger entered the wrong home, but once she was there, as a police officer, genuinely feared she was being burglarized. A defense attorney might claim that it is reasonable to fear for her life in that kind of situation — an argument that would seem to justify the use of force.
Generally, if police are charged in shootings, they’re very rarely convicted. The National Police Misconduct Reporting Project analyzed 3,238 criminal cases against police officers from April 2009 through December 2010. They found that only 33 percent were convicted, and only 36 percent of officers who were convicted ended up serving prison sentences. Both of those are about half the rate at which members of the public are convicted or incarcerated.
It is still unclear what will happen next in the case, and it could be months before Guyger appears before a grand jury. But one week after Botham Jean’s death in his own apartment, there is concern that a conviction will not happen. “We will not stand by quietly as what we believe to be false narratives that diminish any culpability for the offending officer are advanced,” Minister Sammie Berry of Dallas West Church of Christ said after Jean’s funeral on Thursday. “The undeniable reality is that he was slain in his home, where he had the right to be and was abiding by the law.”
Correction: Due to an editing error, old reporting that may have been misleading was included in the original article. That information has been removed.