October 1, 201911:59 AM ET
Updated at 12:20 p.m. ET
A Dallas jury has found former police Officer Amber Guyger guilty of murder for fatally shooting a neighbor who lived in the apartment directly above hers last year. She had testified that she entered Botham Jean’s unit after a long day at work, thinking it was her own home and that he was an intruder.
The jury took five hours to reach a verdict and will begin considering sentencing options Tuesday afternoon. Guyger faces a possible penalty of up to 99 years in prison.
She is the first Dallas police officer convicted of murder since the 1970s, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Prosecutors maintained that Guyger, who is white, committed murder when she overlooked signs that the apartment wasn’t her own — the wrong floor, the smell of marijuana coming from the apartment, a bright red doormat — and shot Jean, a 26-year-old black accountant who was sitting in his living room eating ice cream when Guyger killed him last September.
“There was no other floor mat like this is the entire building. This sticks out, literally, like a red thumb,” lead prosecutor Jason Hermus said in court Monday, holding up the doormat to the jury. “And she walked up to it and stood on top of it.”
But in tearful testimony to the jury last week, Guyger said she was “scared to death” when she opened what she thought was her own apartment door and saw the silhouette of a man she mistook for an intruder.
“I was scared whoever was inside my apartment was going to kill me,” she told the jury. “No police officer would want to hurt an innocent person.”
Guyger lived on the third floor of an apartment complex just south of downtown Dallas. Her lawyers said she was in uniform and had just finished a 13-hour workday when she opened Jean’s door.
“What was going through Amber’s mind was just, ‘I’m going home,’ ” defense lawyer Robert Rogers said. ” ‘I’m exhausted, and I’m going home.’ “
Assistant District Attorney Jason Hermus shows Botham Jean’s red doormat to the jury during opening statements in the murder trial of former Dallas police Officer Amber Guyger.Tom Fox/AP
Guyger testified that she had put her key in the door and realized it was unlocked. Thinking someone had broken in, she drew her gun and entered the apartment.
Then Guyger said she ordered Jean, “Let me see your hands,” and that he instead started to move toward her. Prosecutors countered that nobody in her apartment complex heard her instruct Jean to raise his hands.
Within seconds of opening the door, she fired two shots at Jean. One of the bullets struck him in the chest, killing him.
Guyger then called 911 and told the operator over and over: “I thought it was my apartment.”
The case became transfixing to observers around the country for the delicate questions it presented. Was the shooting a noncriminal accident equal to a “tragic mistake,” as Guyger’s lawyers argued? Or were Guyger’s mistakes so reckless that they constituted manslaughter, or so intentionally negligent that it amounted to murder?
In deciding that she was guilty, the jury, about half of whom were African American, sided with the prosecution.
Others have described the facts of the case as the latest example of a white police officer killing an unarmed black man. Civil rights groups rallied behind Jean, a native of the Caribbean island of St. Lucia. And many police officers came to Guyger’s defense.
Guyger seemed to cast aside race as a factor, saying during her testimony that the encounter was “not about hate,” she said. “It’s about being scared.”
To prosecutors, Guyger’s distraction led to a crime.
Just before Guyger entered Jean’s apartment, she had a 16-minute phone conversation with a fellow officer, Martin Rivera. Authorities say the two had a romantic relationship and that they had been swapping sexually explicit messages.
Prosecutors argued that Guyger was so absorbed with those communications that she was too preoccupied to realize she was heading toward the wrong apartment.
In cross-examining Guyger, prosecutors emphasized that her training as a police officer should have informed her to back away from the door, hide and call for backup if she had suspected an intruder.
Guyger had her police radio on her, and she lives just two blocks away from police headquarters, so she could have had other officers arrive quickly, prosecutors pointed out. Had she done that, Guyger was asked, might Jean be alive today?
“Yes, sir,” she said.
In the state’s closing arguments on Monday, prosecutor Hermus said the only way a defendant can claim self-defense to murder is when there is no other reasonable alternatives.
Hermus said that was not the case when Guyger shot Jean.
“Self-defense means you’re acting defensively,” Hermus said. “She became the aggressor. That’s not self-defense.”
NPR’s Wade Goodwyn contributed to this report.