Dallas County District Court Judge Tammy Kemp ruled Monday that the jury could consider the state’s “castle doctrine” in the trial of Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, who said she mistakenly walked into the apartment of Botham Jean, a 26-year-old accountant who lived one floor above her, and then shot him dead in September 2018 because she thought he was a burglar.
The judge’s decision to allow the defense to use the law, which says your home is your castle and you have a right to defend it, raised the bar for prosecutors and sparked outrage and disbelief from critics who questioned how the law could have protected Guyger when she shot Jean in his own apartment.
“Why should you be allowed to break into someone’s home, shoot them and then be let off the hook by the Castle Doctrine?” Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.), who is running for reelection in Texas, tweeted on Monday.
The case has split public opinion. Civil-rights activists view Jean’s death as another example of police brutality against innocent black people. But local law enforcement see the charges, which came amid a recent flurry of indictments of Dallas officers, as an indication that former district attorney Faith Johnson was acquiescing to a “narrative that cops are bad,” a police union president told the Dallas Morning News.
Guyger, 31, was allegedly distracted with explicit text messages from her partner on the force on Sept. 6, 2018, and tired after a nearly 14-hour shift when she parked in the garage on her building’s fourth floor, instead of the third where she lived, and walked to the unit immediately above her own. The door was unlocked. Jean sat in the living room eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream. Guyger, still in her police uniform, drew her gun and fired twice, killing him.
A week after the shooting, police searched the victim’s apartment for marijuana — a tactic activists denounced as a character “smear,” the Morning News reported. Allegations of special treatment surfaced early in the trial last month, after testimony revealed responding officers left Guyger alone at the crime scene and allowed a police union president to turn off a camera and talk to her in a squad car shortly after the shooting.
Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney representing Jean’s family, told the Associated Press the jury would decide “the value of a black life.”
The district attorney already faced challenges because of the strange facts of the murder. Guyger claimed she genuinely believed she was entering her own apartment, invoking a rarely used defense called “mistake of fact.” Essentially, legal analyst Pete Schulte told The Washington Post, the prosecution had to prove that Guyger could not have reasonably made the mistake of going to the wrong floor and opening her neighbor’s door. Instead, the district attorney needed to convince a jury that Guyger intended to kill Jean.
“It’s very, very difficult for any prosecution,” said Schulte, a Dallas-based a criminal defense lawyer and former Dallas County prosecutor and police officer, who is not connected to the trial.
Guyger admitted on the stand that she shot to kill the young man because she thought he was burglarizing her apartment. Because of that mistake, her defense was built on a self-defense claim and after Kemp’s 11th-hour ruling during a conference with attorneys on Monday, the Texas “castle doctrine.”
Passed in 2007 during a wave of “stand your ground” laws across the nation, Texas’s “castle doctrine” says that if four legal criteria are met, the law presumes that the use of deadly force is reasonable, Schulte said. For the statute to apply, the shooter must believe someone is trespassing illegally on their property, cannot provoke the victim and cannot be committing a crime when they pull the trigger. Finally, they must reasonably believe deadly force is necessary the moment they shoot.
The Dallas trial may have been the first time the castle doctrine was applied to a murder that happened inside the victim’s home. The judge decided that the defense could argue Guyger believed she was in her own apartment when she shot Jean, and could also claim that the law should apply as if she were acting in her own home. Before beginning deliberations, the jury received an instruction explaining both “mistake of fact” and the castle doctrine.
One of the prosecutors on the case, Assistant District Attorney Jason Fine, called Guyger’s testimony “garbage” in closing arguments, crumpling a piece of paper in his hands and tossing it in the trash can. He also objected to the idea that the castle doctrine could protect Guyger.
“It protects homeowners against intruders and now all of a sudden, the intruder is trying to use it against the homeowner,” Fine told the jury, CNN reported. “This law is not in place for her, it’s in place for Bo.”
Toby Shook, Guyger’s defense attorney, told jurors the slaying was not murder but the result of “a series of horrible mistakes,” the Associated Press reported. He emphasized Guyger’s long shift and how other residents in the building reported accidentally going to the wrong unit because of the confusing parking garage. He characterized the shooting as a “split-second decision.”
The decision to allow Guyger’s defense team to invoke the castle doctrine in its defense surprised many in the courtroom, Schulte said.
“I think it shocked a lot of people, including me,” Schulte said. “This case is so rare. You couldn’t even make this up for a law school exam.”
Brittany Shammas contributed to this report.