A grand jury has indicted Amber Guyger, the ex-Dallas police officer who fatally shot Botham Jean in his apartment in September, on a murder charge, Dallas District Attorney Faith Johnson announced Friday.
The Friday indictment comes nearly three months after the death of Jean, a 26-year-old accountant and St. Lucia native, who was killed on September 6 as he watched a football game in his apartment. Guyger was off-duty but still in her Dallas Police Department uniform when she shot her upstairs neighbor after entering what she said she thought was her own apartment, saying that she believed he was an intruder. Jean’s family has disputed this account, arguing that Guyger has offered contradicting information about the night of the shooting.
Guyger turned herself in to police on September 9 and was charged with manslaughter before being released on a $300,000 bond that same day. On September 24, after Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall previously argued that Guyger could not be fired from her job during the investigation, Guyger was terminated by the police department for engaging “in adverse conduct when she was arrested for manslaughter.”
The grand jury began reviewing evidence in the case on Monday, and had three options: to charge Guyger with manslaughter, to upgrade the charges to murder, or to decline to charge Guyger with anything at all. While an announcement on the charges was expected as early as Wednesday, the Dallas Morning News reported that the grand jury spent additional time reviewing evidence and hearing testimony from Jean’s mother, sister, and others.
The murder charge carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, while the initial manslaughter charge carried a maximum sentence of 20 years. The Dallas Morning News also reports that Guyger has been ordered to surrender her passport and is not allowed to travel outside of Texas. Guyger turned herself in to police on Friday and was released soon after.
The charge against Guyger comes after months of protests over Jean’s death, which have fueled heightened criticism of the Dallas Police Department by the local community, who argue that the shooting of a black man in his own home cannot be disconnected from other acts of police violence in the area and should raise concerns about police accountability, racial profiling, and racial disparities in police use of force.
Many of these complaints revolved around the belief that Guyger has been given deferential treatment by law enforcement over the course of the investigation, with critics arguing that Guyger should have initially been charged with murder. Incoming Dallas District Attorney John Creuzot has said that he believes murder charges are more appropriate, and other local attorneys have agreed.
During a Friday press conference shortly after the indictment was announced, Johnson noted that the initial charges came from the Texas Rangers investigation, and argued that the facts of the shooting always supported a murder charge.
“At the moment of this shooting, it was an intentional and knowing offense,” she said.
The indictment comes after months of national attention to the controversial shooting
Much of the initial coverage of Jean’s shooting was shaped by Guyger’s account, which was first detailed in a September 9 arrest affidavit filed after Guyger turned herself in to police. In Guyger’s account to the Texas Rangers (the agency tasked with the main investigation of the shooting), Guyger returned to her apartment building after her shift, unaware of the floor she was on, and attempted to use an electronic key to open the apartment’s 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 entered the apartment, and after seeing a “large silhouette,” she said that she issued verbal commands and then fired twice, striking Jean in the chest. She said 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, arguing that Jean would never leave his door open and that doors in the building make a specific chiming noise when unlocked, something that Guyger should have noticed that night. Lee Merritt, another attorney representing Jean’s family, has 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 were not included in the police search warrant or arrest affidavit because, officers said, the witnesses did not share these details with police. A neighbor of Jean’s 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.
The family argues that these discrepancies, coupled with differences in Guyger’s accounts, have made it hard to believe Guyger’s statements. “The changes in what occurred reduces her credibility,” Allison Jean, Botham’s mother, told reporters at a family press conference on Friday.
Jean’s family has criticized how Guyger was treated in the days after the shooting. In September, Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Mike Snipes told the Washington Post that Guyger would likely be treated as a civilian due to her being off-duty when the shooting took place. If that is the case, it would be difficult for her to employ the protections to use deadly force that officers are allowed to use in more conventional police shooting cases. But the case was initially handled like an officer-involved shooting, and Guyger was not questioned or charged until three days after Jean’s death.
Jean’s family also voiced concerns with what police are and are not sharing about the case, particularly following reports highlighting that a small amount of marijuana was found in Jean’s apartment. The Dallas district attorney argued that the lack of information in recent weeks is largely due to the ongoing investigation, saying that keeping evidence about the shooting — like Guyger’s 911 call, Jean’s autopsy report, and details of Guyger’s policing record — out of the media is necessary to preserve the integrity of the grand jury indictment against the former officer. But that has not tempered criticism of Dallas District Attorney Faith Johnson, who was voted out of office in November.
Johnson pushed back on criticisms of her office during the press conference. “We presented the case in November and didn’t present it in September because we weren’t ready,” she said. She added that the district attorney’s office would not “bow down to political pressure” to take the case to a grand jury earlier, instead focusing on the investigation.
Johnson told reporters that she expects it to be a year or more before Guyger’s trial begins, noting that it took the district attorney’s office roughly 16 months to bring the case of Roy Oliver, an ex-police officer who shot 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in 2017, before a court. Oliver was convicted of murder earlier this year and was sentenced to 15 years in prison.
Jean’s family is focused on the upcoming trial, but is also calling for police reform in Dallas
In a statement released Friday evening, Guyger’s attorney, Robert Rogers, argued that his client’s indictment was the result of an “outpouring of vindictive emotion.”
“This is a terrible tragedy that resulted from a true mistake,” he said in the statement, according to CNN. “We are confident that a dispassionate jury in a fair forum will objectively apply the law to the facts and find Amber not guilty.”
It is unclear when Guyger will go on trial for the shooting, but her trial won’t be the only time that Botham Jean’s death is discussed in court: In October, Jean’s family filed a federal lawsuit against Guyger and the city of Dallas, arguing that the former officer violated Jean’s constitutional rights and that the Dallas Police Department is liable for Jean’s death.
Merritt told reporters that the city of Dallas has asked that the family’s civil suit be dismissed. “The city of Dallas itself, the elected officials, people who paid lip service to this family, have acted like politics as usual,” he said, explaining that the family will continue to push for police reform in the city as they fight for Guyger’s conviction.
As the family’s press conference came to a close, Jean’s mother linked the death of her son to a broader pattern of black men and women killed by police. “It’s about all black men and how they are treated in the future,” she said citing, the recent police shootings of Jemel Roberson in Illinois and Emantic “EJ” Fitzgerald Bradford Jr. in Alabama. Her son’s death, she hopes, will be a “signal to officers across the US that they need to think first before pulling the trigger.”