The motion filed by former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger’s lawyers asking for her murder trial to be moved out of Dallas is 60 pages long not counting appendices. It raises very tough questions that anybody with a fair mind would have trouble answering thoughtfully right off the bat. They are not shooting from the hip.
Guyger, 30, shot and killed Botham Jean, 26, an accountant who was a native of St. Lucia. Jean, an upstanding citizen, was in his own apartment at night causing no harm. Guyger, who lived in the same large renovated warehouse, told authorities she entered Jean’s apartment mistakenly thinking it was her own and shot Jean because she thought he was an intruder.
Those bare facts would make the case difficult enough. Guyger is charged with murder, but how can it be murder if she honestly believed Jean had broken into her own apartment? Could she have believed that? Can you be that mistaken? If you are that mistaken and it causes you to kill somebody, what is the consequence or price?
But as the motion for a change of venue lays out in painstaking detail, those bare facts are the least part of the problem in determining whether Guyger can be given a fair trial in Dallas. The much larger and more consequential part of the picture is the racial narrative and its relation to national racial themes involving police and the use of deadly force.
Guyger is white. Jean was black. Any of us knows that Guyger is probably toast if her fatal shooting of Jean had one ounce of race in it. The nation has reached a long overdue moment of outrage and shame over shootings and deaths of innocent black citizens at the hands of racist white cops. As The Dallas Morning News asked in a headline over a story about Botham Jean’s death, “When will it stop?”
But, wait. When will what stop? What if this shooting had nothing to do with race? The motion for change of venue argues that a powerful, broad-based, concerted effort including a campaign by the Morning News has sought to make this a racial issue. The motion argues another point that seems incontrovertible at this point: In the 10 months since Jean’s death, not a scintilla of evidence has reached the public to show that it was about race. Nothing.
Moving a trial out of the venue with original jurisdiction is a complicated, extreme measure with a whole lot of moving legal parts, but we non-lawyers can understand the big part easily enough. We can all agree that race may potentially be an enormous factor, maybe even a deciding factor in the legal outcome for Guyger.
If prosecutors can prove to a jury she was rogue racist cop, then she’s going to pay a hard price. Therefore, everything that gets said on that topic beforehand in the court of public opinion is important, especially in the absence of hard evidence.
The motion cites 296 news articles published or broadcast since Sept. 6, 2018. Call me whatever you want to call me, but I sorted through and looked only at the ones published by the Morning News, and I am happy to say why. The Morning News is a powerful, conservative mainstream voice in the community, probably viewed as a white people’s newspaper by most of us.
If the city’s locally owned daily newspaper tilts against its own stereotype, that automatically gives it a certain counterintuitive credibility and a resulting influence it might not otherwise enjoy. That’s exactly what has happened here.
The “When Will It Stop?” headline is cited in the motion for change of venue but seems like fair-play to me. It’s a quote from Botham Jean’s mother, who went on to tell the Morning News, “I thought the police were there for the protection of its citizens.” That’s a cry from the heart of a grieving mother and a legitimate element in any news story.
It’s more the Morning News editorial page that has done the pot-stirring for a conviction, in large part by linking the Guyger/Jean case to other notorious and proven instances of racist shootings by white cops.
On Nov. 19, the Morning News set the tone in an editorial that directly linked the Jean killing with the case of former Balch Springs officer Roy Oliver, convicted and sentenced to 15 years in the shooting of Jordan Edwards, an unarmed teenager riding in a car. The editorial was a complaint against District Attorney John Creuzot, whom the editorial accused of erring by charging Guyger with murder rather than a lesser charge like manslaughter. The editorial page seemed to think a manslaughter charge would be an easier kill:
“But as Creuzot works through this case,” the paper said, “we caution him to be mindful that in going for the most serious charge in this terrible and bizarre case, he takes a greater risk of a jury returning a not guilty verdict.
“Convicting on a murder charge, with its stiffer sentence, will be a tougher case to win, especially when a police officer is involved — and especially when there are so many questions surrounding the circumstances of the shooting.”
With never an ounce of evidence presented yet in court or in legal documents, the paper said conviction was already the only acceptable outcome. Anything less, it said, “would compound this horrific tragedy.
“We’ve seen far too many of these police-involved shootings of black citizens end without police officers being held accountable for their actions. Murder indictments are rare, convictions and tough sentences even more so.
“The conviction and sentencing of former Balch Springs police officer Roy Oliver, who is white, in the murder of black unarmed teen Jordan Edwards was the first time in 40 years that a Texas police officer had been convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting.”
Invoking the aggrieved parents, the editorial concluded, “There is no question Jean and his family deserve justice.”
Let’s pause and make sure we catch the important adjacency of ideas here, because it’s a little tricky, perhaps deliberately so. Dog Whistle One: This is Roy Oliver all over again, the story of a trigger-happy white cop shooting an innocent black person because the cop is a racist. Whistle Two: The only just outcome is a conviction. Whistle Three: White cops get away with a lot of stuff, so we don’t want to let this one slip the noose. Whistle Four: Therefore the charge in this case should be based not on what we think really happened but on what we think we can sell to a jury most handily.
And then, for most people, the really big dog whistle: This is The Dallas Morning News?
Yup. Over and over again. Barely two weeks later, a Morning News editorial went after Creuzot again, brow-beating him again to reduce the charges for a surer win and making the direct link again to Roy Oliver: “We worry, though, that the murder charge creates a greater risk of a not-guilty verdict.”
The motion for a new venue cites multiple instances in which people speaking either in news stories or on the opinion pages of the newspaper use the word “lynching” to describe the shooting of Jean — a horrible and powerful word from the worst nightmares of American history. But lynching is mentioned in the paper’s coverage only as a term to describe depredations by racist whites against black citizens. Never is there an effort to show that lynching is lynching — the unjust taking or ruination of a human life.
If Amber Guyger did not shoot Botham Jean because she is white and he was black, if she is sent to prison anyway because the entire jury pool has been led to believe that’s what happened, is that not a lynching? Can white people not be lynched? Can white cops not be lynched?
The motion for change of venue says, “There exists in Dallas County so great a prejudice against Defendant (Guyger) that she cannot receive a fair and impartial trial in Dallas County.
“There exists a dangerous combination against Defendant instigated by influential persons that she cannot receive a fair trial, and the amount of publicity generated as a result of this case has been so great that it has produced so much prejudice in the county that the likelihood of Defendant receiving a fair and impartial trial is doubtful.”
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I absolutely do not profess to know what this outcome should be. I want to believe that the legal system and a fair trial will answer that question for us. This case is so unusual and turns on such a bizarre set of facts, I really can’t imagine how anyone could fairly decide what the outcome should be before a trial takes place.
In the meantime, here’s another puzzle question for most of us: Why would The Dallas Morning News lead the way, setting the tone for much of the collateral coverage with such a heavy hand set so hard against the cop? I am opening the envelope. And the answer is … I have no earthly idea.
This very carefully wrought 60-page petition makes the case persuasively that the News is on the warpath against Guyger. But the why isn’t there, and I don’t know where it is.
Maybe the why isn’t really relevant. If I’m Guyger, how much do I care why the News does what it does? I think I just care what it does. If what it does is carry on an entire campaign to nail me as a racist just before I go on trial for murder, I think I want the hell out of Dodge.