The family of Botham Shem Jean, the unarmed black man who authorities say was fatally shot by a Dallas police officer inside his own apartment, spent Thursday celebrating his life. Hundreds of people filed into the Greenville Avenue Church of Christ in Richardson, Tex., to pay their respects at Jean’s funeral service, remembering the 26-year-old businessman as “the light in a dark room,” his friend Pastor Michael Griffin said.
But then around 5 p.m., the family’s lawyers were alerted to apparent breaking news in the investigation into Jean’s death.
“DEVELOPING,” read a tweet from the local Dallas Fox affiliate. “Search warrant: Marijuana found in Botham Jean’s apartment after deadly shooting.”
The news and the tweet, which received criticism online, had nothing to do with why Jean was killed the night of Sept. 6. But the situation was also familiar, another example of how unarmed black men who are victims in police shootings are defamed and made to look like criminals even in death as police investigations unfold, said Lee Merritt, a civil rights attorney who represents Jean’s family.
“[Jean] was not only never convicted of a crime, he was never even accused of a crime, never arrested,” Merritt told The Washington Post. “It took a white Dallas police officer to break into his home and shoot him to death for him to become painted as a criminal.”
Dallas police officer Amber Guyger has been charged with manslaughter in Jean’s death after authorities say she entered Jean’s apartment — allegedly mistakenly believing it was her own — and fired on him. Guyger was in uniform and had just returned from a shift about 10 p.m. Jean’s apartment was dark, she claimed, according to an arrest affidavit. She claimed she saw a “large silhouette” from across the room, believed it was a burglar and fired her gun twice, striking him in the torso and killing him, the arrest affidavit states.
On Thursday, multiple news outlets reported the results of a search warrant executed on Jean’s apartment. A judge authorized police to search for guns, fired cartridge casings, trace evidence such as blood, video surveillance and also “any contraband, such as narcotics,” according to the affidavit for a search warrant, which the Fort Worth Star-Telegram posted online.
Merritt said the fact that police went looking for drugs appeared to indicate that they were bent on diminishing Jean’s credibility, which, he said, is “a familiar pattern” in police shootings. Police found two shell casings and less than one ounce of marijuana in Jean’s apartment, the Dallas Morning News reported. The warrant does not say to whom it belongs, but Merritt said that “it has so little relevance” that it doesn’t matter.
“It’s not surprising but it’s telling. It’s telling that in a homicide investigation they went looking for drug paraphernalia,” Merritt said. “There could only be one purpose for that. The only purpose is to look for information to smear the dead. That is exactly their specific intent.”
It is not clear what, if any, search warrants have been executed on Guyger’s property. The Dallas Police Department could not be immediately reached for comment regarding the search warrants. The Texas Department of Public Safety, which is also involved in the investigation, declined to comment.
The history of what Merritt described as “character assassinations” in the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police has been long documented.
In an article published in the January 2016 edition of Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, researchers CalvinJohn Smiley, a sociology professor at Hunter College of City University, and David Fakunle, now a postdoctoral research fellow at Morgan State University, described several high-profile cases in which information such as a victim’s criminal history, neighborhood or even physique was used to “posthumously criminalize” him.
In the case of Eric Garner, who was fatally strangled by police in New York City in 2014, police and subsequently the news media frequently emphasized that Garner was accused of illegally selling individual cigarettes prior to the fatal encounter and that he had a history of arrests, the researchers noted.
In the case of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, shot to death by Cleveland police while holding a toy gun in 2014, the backgrounds of his parents became part of the story of Rice’s death, as though parenting skills could be to blame for the shooting, the researchers wrote. In one report on Cleveland.com, the media outlet dug up Rice’s father’s past convictions for abusing women and his mother’s two arrests dating from 2001.
And in the case of 18-year-old Michael Brown, shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, police zeroed in on Brown’s alleged attempt to steal cigars from a convenience store prior to the shooting, while critics fired back that it had nothing to do with it. The researchers called the convenience store focus a “micro-invalidation” in Brown’s death, arguing “this report of him robbing a convenience store took precedent to the overall narrative of an unarmed young Black male being shot several times by a police officer.”
“It’s a systemic issue,” Merritt told The Post. “We’ve been conditioned to associate black people with crime” even when they are victims, he said.