Now, in Texas, a white police officer is going to jail for shooting an unarmed black man. It is something that seemed almost impossible before.
When charges were first announced against Dallas police officer Amber Guyger, it seemed like a straightforward case. Certainly parts of the story were familiar: a young black man who was taken from his family too soon, an officer protected by the blue wall, a mourning black mother.
Yet so many people, including me, couldn’t help but to shake the feeling that this case was going to end differently. This age-old narrative would finally change. From the beginning, the fact that Guyger was even charged at all could be considered progress, as not a single Dallas Police Department officer from 1973 to 2016 was charged with murder for killing a civilian.
And unlike many previous cases, the basic facts of this case were not in dispute. Shortly before 10 p.m. on Sept. 6, 2018, Guyger walked into Botham Jean’s unlocked apartment, mistaking it for her own, and shot Jean while he was eating ice cream in his living room.
Guyger somehow overlooked that she was on the wrong floor, standing at a door with a bright red doormat that she didn’t own. Prosecutors argued that she was distracted by sexts from her partner. Defense attorneys claimed she was tired from a 14-hour shift. Regardless of the forces that brought Guyger to that door, an innocent 26-year-old was killed in his own home.
During the trial, Judge Tammy Kemp permitted jurors to consider the “castle doctrine” in Guyger’s defense, which states that a person is allowed to use deadly force in the protection of their home or “castle.” Of course, Guyger wasn’t in her own castle; she was in Jean’s. But it nonetheless led to widespread fears that Guyger would be able to avoid responsibility for her actions. An acquittal would surely follow, and once again, it would confirm that black lives are valued less than others.
But the jury found Guyger guilty of murder. The Jean family’s attorney, Benjamin Crump, called the verdict “historic,” saying: “We hope that it sends the message to the police departments that your officers should be following the policies of de-escalation. … We pray that it will be a precedence to reaffirm what the United States Constitution has emblazoned on our society, that it is equal justice under the law.”
A day later, Guyger received her sentence: 10 years in prison. After the verdict was read, the Jean family was reportedly silent — “almost shell-shocked,” according to CNN. Later, Botham’s 18-year-old brother, Brandt, said he forgave Guyger and asked to give her a hug. Shortly afterward, the judge also gave Guyger a hug and a Bible, and the two prayed together.
As remarkable and extraordinary as those actions may seem, this isn’t the first time victims of violence against black people have displayed forgiveness and compassion. The members of the congregation at Emanuel AME Church forgave Dylann Roof after he shot and killed nine people during bible study. Teen Vogue columnist Jenn M. Jackson has even argued that the black community is expected to express forgiveness in the face of violence.
So often in these cases that capture the nation’s attention, we search for clarity on what lessons can be learned. We want there to be some overarching message that can help explain the episode or avoid future situations. We look for some small fact that can validate our world view.
After unwrapping the facts in Guyger’s case, I keep coming back to the most basic lesson of all: Some things just never change. During sentencing, Guyger’s attorney Toby Shook said: “This event is so unique, you’ll never see it again in the history of the United States.” I disagree. What happened in this situation has happened many times before. Sure, some parts of the story have been remixed and plot twists were added, but it’s still part of the same book. And until there is action and accountability in the system, it will continue to happen. A conviction and 10-year sentence might provide some measure of justice, but Botham didn’t deserve to die. Touching moments in a courtroom don’t change that fact.
There are still too many guns, and people are still too likely to use them. There is still too little accountability for police officers and departments. The criminal-justice system is still mistrusted. There are still too many grieving mothers and fathers who can only ask “why?” There are still not enough people who can give them answers.