Let’s play a game called, “What is Dallas so worried about?” The city has ordered all of its cops not to take time off beginning this week for the duration of the trial of former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger.
Guyger, who is white, is accused of murder in the Sept. 6, 2018, shooting death of Botham Jean, a 26 year-old accountant killed his own apartment. Jean was black. From the beginning, this case has evoked powerful feelings in the community, not entirely but significantly along racial lines.
So is the city keeping all the cops on call because it is afraid that the white people might riot? Is that it? I’m just asking.
No cops can take time off, and the city must remain on high alert, because city officials are afraid white people will burn the place down if Guyger is convicted. Does that ring true to you?
I’m not asking you who’s more likely to burn the place down if it doesn’t go their way, white people or black people. I am asking you what you think city officials are telling us.
And let me ask you something else. Why did city officials have to tell us? Why did they publicly announce the no-time-off policy for cops? Couldn’t they just have done it? Isn’t this a personnel matter? How did it become a public issue that needed to be announced? What’s the public part?
Here’s why I ask. I think 99.9% of the public is going to look at this policy, no time off for cops during the Guyger trial, and think it’s about black people. Is it racist to assume it’s about black people? Was it racist to do it in the first place? Was it racist to announce the policy publicly?
Sure. Has to be. I’m certain there is some weird thread of racism woven through all of it. I am equally sure I am not smart enough to un-weave it.
But here is what I can un-weave, and I think you can, too, if you take the time. In this trial, heavily freighted with race, a public announcement that the police department is on red alert is a powerful message that there may be racial trouble if Guyger gets off. And that fear is about black people.
Yeah, OK, tell me I’m wrong. City officials are really worried about the white folks rioting. Tell you what. I don’t very much think so. And neither do you.
Assuming someone at City Hall truly believes there is a threat of public discord related to this trial, surely the same person can see the powerful message that a public announcement sends to jurors: “If you let her off, the black people will riot.”
Talk about racism. But City Hall is hardly the Lone Ranger on this score. Last Thursday, The Dallas Morning News ran a long, pompous editorial that was maybe the worst attempt at feigned fairness I have ever seen:
“An impartial assessment of the evidence is the only path to justice in this case,” the paper says in its official voice on the editorial page.
“The rule of law and the tenets of a civilized society dictate that Guyger have her day in court to explain her actions and for a jury to determine her accountability.”
So far, so good. She gets a trial.
But then the paper says, “It’s fair to debate whether Guyger should have been charged with murder or manslaughter.”
This is an old saw by now for the News. They have said repeatedly that they wished Guyger had been charged with manslaughter, because the newspaper’s editorial page, in all its legal acumen, thinks a manslaughter conviction would have been easier to get than murder.
“We're on record,” the paper says, “with worries that a murder charge — with its stiffer sentence — creates a greater risk of a determination that Guyger bears no responsibility for Jean's death. We can't lose sight that the man was killed minding his own business in his own home.” And then they say, “But that’s for the jury to decide.”
So what that means is that Guyger is guilty, in the paper’s opinion, and she needs to be convicted of something, anything, whatever will stick. But that’s for the jury to decide. So if the jury walks her, the jury decided wrong.
Does it not mean that? Where did I miss a step? Show me. Let’s not even delve into the legal sleaziness of this argument. Every lawyer I have talked to about this says the same thing: manslaughter and murder are different crimes, different charges with different proofs that must be made for a conviction. In terms of the issues and proofs required, one conviction is not easier than the other. They are just different.
A manslaughter conviction may only be easier to get than murder, because a jury might take manslaughter a little less seriously, pay a little less attention to the law, weigh the matter less gravely. So in that sense, manslaughter might be a cheaper, quicker conviction for the state to get than murder.
And, of course, that is precisely the News editorial page’s argument: They want a manslaughter charge, because they think manslaughter would be a more down and dirty conviction. That is not an uplifting thought.
And just in case there was any doubt about the paper’s intentions, the very next day, on Friday, the newspaper published a softball celebrity-style Q&A interview with Botham Jean’s mother. In that interview, the bereaved mother conveys that she believes her son was murdered, that Guyger is guilty of that murder and that Guyger must be punished.
All of this is framed with heart-rending descriptions of the family’s “peach two-story home atop a hill with winding roads and a view of the Caribbean.
“His mother still lives in that home,” the story says, “and Jean is buried in a cemetery by that sea.”
As a human being, I can feel only a very painful sympathy for this woman whose son was taken from her in such a horrible way. As a lifelong newspaper reporter, I’m certainly not going to get holier-than-thou about pumping the bereaved mother for an interview days before the trial.
We do these stories. They’re not fun to do. Shouldn’t be. But the mother’s story is important. People are interested. It’s legit.
But here’s the normal newspaper angle on a thing like this: Amber Guyger has a mother, too. She has family. What on earth are they going through, as they watch their loved one enter this dark and perilous tunnel?
That’s a story, too. In fact, just about anybody I ever worked for in the business would say that those two stories are only legit when we can get both stories and run them the same day, side by side.
Nobody I ever worked for who was any good would have done either one of these stories as a Hollywood Q&A. For one thing, there are tough questions to be put to both families.
Guyger’s mother has appeared in a photo wearing one of those “All Lives Matter” T-shirts. That photo has made the rounds. So how about it? What was that supposed to mean?
Jean’s family is suing. Usually in a case like this, the civil suit is kept on the back burner until after the criminal trial, so the family can’t be accused of profiteering. There may be a good reason why this case is different. But what is it?
Even if you are very strongly sympathetic with Jean’s family and feel no sympathy whatsoever for Guyger’s family, at least you can see the deleterious effect of this one-sidedness. Like the editorial that preceded it by 24 hours, the Q&A with Jean’s mother comes across not as legitimate journalism but as a message, propaganda, a signal:
“Here is the family for whom you should feel sympathy. Listen to what they want. They want a conviction. They want punishment. They will be gravely injured if there is no conviction.”
And on Guyger’s side of the tracks? Howling silence. She doesn’t even have a family, as far as the Morning News is concerned. She doesn’t deserve equal time, because she is not a person.
Try to weigh these messages. One is so official and so terrible. There might as well be a big, flashing digital billboard over City Hall saying, “Convict Guyger or Riots.”
The other message from the city’s only daily newspaper is unofficial but so terribly twisted: “Be fair, follow the law, but make sure, one way or the other, that Guyger gets sent to the pen so we won’t have a riot.”
I guess we could spend a lot of time pondering why. If we did that, my own suspicions probably would lead me down into the city’s long, dark history of racism and the belief of white people that black people are always on the verge of nuclear explosion. It’s just so infuriatingly patronizing, and I guess that’s the description I would wind up with for the way the city’s leadership is treating this trial — infuriatingly patronizing.
But let’s not. We’re never going to get to the bottom of that one. Instead, let’s focus on a very important problem in this trial that can be solved.
With City Hall itself sending out deeply biasing signals and the daily newspaper playing subliminal mind games with the jury pool, the judge needs to realize that this trial cannot take place in Dallas. Sad to say, but right now there isn’t enough honor or good intention in all of Dallas County for this trial to come out fair and square. And there’s a lot of thirst for blood.
The coliseum is raging for Guyger’s blood. The emperor wants blood. The tribunes want blood. The coliseum is not a good place for a trial right now.
At this point, the least populated county, in West Texas, probably could sort this out better than we can. I believe that would be Loving County.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.