People don’t like to make things about race if they can help it, but in the case of former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger’s conviction and sentencing for the murder of Botham Jean, it could have either played a major role, or none at all.
The case’s aftermath only raised more questions and concerns: how would events have played out if Guyger and Jean’s races were switched, and how do white and black audiences view concepts like forgiveness and justice in high profile cases such as this one?
This story sticks out because of its complexities involving race and police brutality. Guyger, a white woman, is the first police officer to be convicted of murder in Dallas since the 1970s. She was sentenced to 10 years in prison after fatally shooting her neighbor, Botham Jean, in his apartment which she mistook for her own on September 6, 2018.
Having just come home from a 13-hour shift, Guyger may have been distracted by the recent conversation she’d had with a fellow officer, Martin Rivera. Supposedly, the two were in a romantic relationship and had just finished a 16-minute phone conversation.
Guyger stated that she tried to put her keys into the lock, but after realizing that it was unlocked, she drew her gun thinking someone may have broken in. She claims she saw the silhouette of a man in the apartment and said “let me see your hands,” though nobody in the neighboring apartments heard her say so.
In fact, one of the key witnesses to the incident, Joshua Brown, said that he heard what sounded like “two people meeting by surprise,” which contrasts with what Guyger claimed. Brown, who lived across the hall from Jean, was in the hallway of the fourth floor of the Cedars apartment building when everything happened. He claimed he couldn’t make out what they were saying, but they were speaking at the same time. Then he heard the gunshots.
Brown was a major part of the investigation, but on October 4, he was shot to death in an apartment complex parking lot at in Dallas. Police have identified three suspects for who shot Brown, and they suspect that the altercation resulted from a drug deal gone wrong. After issuing a search warrant for Brown’s apartment, police say they found 12 pounds of marijuana, more than 140 grams of THC cartridges and $4,000 in cash.
Guyger claims that the man in the apartment started to move towards her, so she shot out of self-defense. She fired twice, one bullet going into Jean’s chest and killing him. She immediately called 911 and repeatedly told the operator that she thought it was her apartment.
Could it be possible that Guyger was so distracted that she didn’t notice such things? If so, her awareness as a police officer is questionable. Police officers are often in dangerous situations and need to be prepared to act without emotions clouding their judgment.
Or did she intend to harm her neighbor? It’s completely possible that race played a factor in her actions and that the two possibly had past disputes. She could have come to Jean’s apartment intending to kill him. Either way, her actions were misguided and cost Jean his life.
Her trial concluded on October 2, but what happened after the sentencing that has created more conversation.
The jury decided that Guyger’s actions weren’t hateful, sentencing her to only 10 years in prison. Judge Tammy Kemp gifted Guyger a bible and embraced her after Guyger asked her for a hug: an act of kindness to some and an unethical act to others.
Jean’s brother, Brandt Jean, also embraced Guyger before she was taken away, saying that he hopes she can dedicate her life to Christ. Brandt’s act of forgiveness has elicited other reactions. While Brandt personally decided to embrace Guyger, society still expects black people to have compassion towards white people in cases like this one.
“If you are truly sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you,” Brandt said in the courtroom.
These acts of compassion and forgiveness are not the problem. The problem is that if the races were switched, there’d be none given.
If Brandt Jean were white and Guyger black, Brandt Jean wouldn’t have been questioned for being angry. Society rationalizes white people’s anger toward black people in these circumstances, and therefore white people don’t have to worry about people analyzing their anger as wrong.
There isn’t a way for African-Americans to please their audiences in these circumstances. If Brandt Jean had been more angry with Guyger, he would have been criticized for his rage. Instead, his act of forgiveness earned disapproval for playing into the expectations that society unfairly places on black people. There simply aren’t the same pressures placed on white people.
While our world can always use more forgiveness like the kind Brandt Jean gave to Guyger, black anger should not be considered unacceptable. Especially in circumstances like this, where if the races were switched, white people would be much angrier than Brandt Jean was.