Earl Ofari Hutchinson
It didn’t take long for the inevitable to happen in the slaying of Botham Jean. The inevitable being the media and police rush to headline any and everything that will cast the least bit of public doubt that Jean was a completely innocent victim in his own murder. The starting point is the shooter and the victim. He was a young black male. The shooter Amber Guyger is a young white female Dallas police officer. This instantly raised clouds of suspicion and layers of protection that would not be the case if the roles had been reversed.
Here’s what has been dutifully reported and headlined almost as if these are indisputable facts. His door was open. He ignored commands to comply. She had just finished work on a long and tiring shift. His apartment was located on the same parking floor as hers. She bawled like a baby after she realized that she had made the deadly mistake. The kicker: She thought that her apartment was being burglarized.
There is no actual video that traces every step of the encounter. There is no witness to corroborate or dispute her version of what happened. And Jean is dead. So, the media and public get her word and her word alone as to why she gunned Jean down.
She got another huge benefit of the doubt in the shooting when she was not immediately arrested, and then slapped with a questionable charge of manslaughter, had a modest bail set, immediately posted it, and will remain free on paid administrative leave. Guyger’s alibi, her badge, and the muddled circumstances of the killing will be tough hurdles for a prosecutor to scale. It will be virtually impossible to prove there was intent, or malice. The only legal recourse is to try and prove there was gross dereliction of duty on her part that led to the slaying. This alone will be a tough slog. However, that’s not the worst of it.
Guyger will be defended by top gun attorneys supplied by the police union.
They almost always have lots of experience defending police officers accused of misconduct. The union will spare no expense to present a first-class defense for her. The attorneys will play for time. That means filing motion after motion to get the charges dropped. That’s not likely to happen, but it chews up the clock in the case. With the passage of time, public passions cool, memories fade, and the media moves on. This makes it that much easier to get a jury that can look at the case without emotionally colored lenses often tainted by race.
This also makes it even easier to get jurors who will believe the police version of what happened in a deadly encounter. The presumption is that they are much more likely to believe the testimony of police and police defense witnesses than black witnesses, defendants, or even the victims. It’s a presumption that has been borne out in police misconduct trials time and again.
Prosecutors will also have to fight hard to overcome negative racial stereotypes. Jean had no criminal record. He was a college graduate. He sang in a religious choir. He had a professional job offer. He was well thought of by friends, family members, and neighbors. This gave him some immediate shield from the usual media dirt digging, character assassination, and unsavory insinuations about gang and drug involvement, family dysfunctionality, and crime and violence about young black males. However, research studies have found that even when the victims of crimes are black, and their assailants are white, many still identify the perpetrator as black.
The negative perceptions of blacks, especially black males, by much of the public are not the only problem in prosecuting cops who overuse deadly force. There is no ironclad standard of what is or isn’t an acceptable use of force in police misconduct cases. It often comes down to a judgment call by the officer. The judgement starts with the words uttered by nearly every officer in every slaying of an unarmed civilian, “I feared for my life or the life of others.”
These words are codified in law in many states. With only slight variations in the states the words are that an officer can use deadly force when he or she reasonably believes it’s necessary to protect life. The operative words are “reasonably believes.” Translated, that means that there is no written code, rule, or guideline for what exactly reasonable belief is or means.
Juries and judges in prior police misconduct trials have bought this claim and have acquitted.
Guyger’s defense attorneys almost certainly will make that same claim and that she perceived a threat from Jean. If there are no witnesses, and in this case no videotape of the killing, it will essentially be her word and testimony the judge and jury will hear with no refutation from Jean.
This is not to say that Guyger won’t be convicted. After all, she did kill a man not on the street, or in a dark alley, but in his own apartment. This is an irrefutable fact. However, given the set pattern of police walking free in far too many other dubious shootings, Guyger may still be one of them.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. He is the author of Why Black Lives Do Matter (Middle Passage Press). He is a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on Radio One. He is the host of the weekly Hutchinson Report on KPFK 90.7 FM Los Angeles and the Pacifica Network.