DALLAS (Reuters) - A Dallas jury on Tuesday found former police officer Amber Guyger guilty of murder for accidentally walking into a neighbor’s apartment while thinking it was her own and fatally shooting him as he ate ice cream.
The Sept. 6, 2018 killing of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old black PwC accountant, by a white officer sparked street protests, particularly when prosecutors initially opted to bring the lesser charge of manslaughter against Guyger, 31.
“We the jury unanimously find the defendant Amber Guyger guilty of murder as charged in the indictment,” Judge Tammy Kemp read aloud to the courtroom from the jurors’ statement. A sob cut the judge off and Kemp paused to address the courtroom: “No outbursts.”
Guyger, 31, could face life in prison for the slaying.
The jury began hearing testimony during the sentencing phase of the trial - Texas is among a handful of U.S. states where juries can decide on sentencing - but adjourned for the day by late afternoon.
Prosecutors showed them several text messages that painted Guyger as a violent racist.
One text Guyger wrote in January 2018 stated how she would like to use pepper spray on the crowd at a Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Dallas, while in another she wrote that her black police colleagues “just have a different way of working and it shows.”
Guyger also shared a post on Pinterest that stated: “I wear all black to remind you not to mess with me, because I’m already dressed for your funeral.”
It is relatively rare for U.S. police officers to be convicted of murder for shooting people they view as suspects. But unlike other recent high-profile killings, such as those of Michael Brown in Missouri and Philando Castile in Minnesota, Guyger was not on duty or responding to a reported crime when she pulled the trigger.
“Botham was the best we had to offer. It shouldn’t take all that for unarmed black and brown people to get justice,” said civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing the Jean family.
“This verdict is for Trayvon Martin, for Michael Brown ... for Eric Garner ... for so many unarmed black and brown unarmed human beings across America.”
Martin, whose family was also represented by Crump, was shot and killed in 2012 by a civilian neighborhood watchman in Florida, who was cleared. Garner died in 2014 when a New York police officer put him in a prohibited chokehold, that officer was fired last month.
Guyger, who had spent four years on the force before the killing, took the rare step of testifying in her own defense during her trial, tearfully expressing regret for shooting Jean but saying she had believed her life was in danger when she pulled the trigger.
During the trial, Guyger’s defense attorney said she was “on autopilot” after a long work day, when she mistakenly parked on the wrong floor in the garage and was able to enter Jean’s apartment because he had left the door slightly ajar.
“I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I have to live with this every single day,” Guyger told the jury of eight women and four men.
In cross-examination, Assistant District Attorney Jason Hermus asked her, “When you shot him twice, you intended to kill him, didn’t you?”
“I did,” Guyger responded, in a calm voice.
Prosecutors also argued that Guyger did little to help Jean even after realizing her mistake, calling the 911 emergency phone number for an ambulance but not administering first aid.
Hermus also told the jury that Guyger missed blatant clues that she was not in her own apartment - including the smell of marijuana smoke - because she was distracted after a 16-minute phone conversation on her commute with her former police partner. Guyger testified that the call was in relation to work.
Neither prosecutors nor the defense focused on race during the trial.
Lee Merritt, another lawyer for the Jean family, said they were unsurprised by the verdict.
“You had someone who was unarmed, unaggressive eating a bowl of ice cream, and somebody barged in and shot him to death,” Merritt told reporters after the verdict was read. “We believed the right verdict would come out, though we knew that in America that is rare.”
Jean’s mother, Allison, was the first to provide testimony in the sentencing phase of the trial. She told the jury her son was a star student who had attended Harding University, a Christian school in Arkansas.
When asked about the moment she learned her son had been killed, she choked on tears.
“My life has not been the same. It’s been a roller coaster,” she said. “I cannot sleep. I cannot eat. It’s just been the most terrible time for me.”
Reporting by Bruce Tomaso; Additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Scott Malone, Sandra Maler and Tom Brown