Call it wild speculation, but I think we’ve just been struggling as a community to figure out the wildly troubling case of Amber Guyger and Botham Jean, a terrible event in which a white Dallas cop shot and killed an innocent black man in his own apartment last Sept. 6.
John Creuzot, our newly elected Dallas County district attorney, said on TV last Sunday he thinks Guyger should have been charged with murder instead of the standing charge of manslaughter.
The Dallas Morning News got a little finger-waggy about it on the editorial page yesterday, warning Creuzot not to go overboard before he knows the facts. But when I went back and listened to his opinion on TV, one of the first things I heard Creuzot say was that he wasn’t going to go overboard about it until he knew the facts.
Meanwhile, I am troubled by what a weak grip on the facts we in the media seem to have generally in most matters of guns and gun violence. Between guns, bad weather and elections, I don’t know what else we have to worry about.
Last Sunday, Creuzot reaffirmed a statement he had made in greater detail already during his recent campaign for office. He told Jason Whitely on WFAA-TV’s Inside Texas Politics show that he thinks a charge of murder would have been appropriate for Officer Amber Guyger.
Guyger's story is that she came home late from a long shift, parked on the wrong level of her apartment building’s garage by mistake, entered the building on the wrong floor, went to the apartment of Botham Jean thinking it was her own apartment and fatally shot Jean because she thought he was an intruder.
Since the incident, a furious public debate has whirled around what was really in Guyger’s mind when she pulled the trigger. A four-year veteran of the Dallas police force, Guyger was charged with manslaughter and fired from the force three weeks after the shooting.
She has been free since then awaiting trial on $300,000 bail. Had she been charged with murder, she might have been denied bail, or bail might have been set closer to $1 million.
The public brouhaha since then has been between people at one extreme who think Guyger obviously is a murderer and should be sent up for life tomorrow and those who think the shooting was a forgivable sort of flub and Guyger should go back to work without a slap on the wrist. One thing that may slip by some ardent partisans on both sides is that Creuzot did not say Guyger is guilty of murder.
An experienced jurist, lawyer and prosecutor, Creuzot was talking strictly about the appropriateness of the charge, given typical practice under Texas law. He carefully stepped around any direct accusation of guilt.
“In this case,” Creuzot told Whitely, “based on what I know, and that’s from you guys, because what you all have reported, nothing else has gotten out into the public airways, so to speak, I think that murder would be the most appropriate charge under the circumstances. But I don’t know everything.”
Creuzot also suggested his opinion in the matter could turn out to be irrelevant, depending on timing. He said the case probably will go to a grand jury before he takes office next January.
On the other hand, if the case does come to Creuzot after he takes office, he made it plain Texas law will give him authority to change the charge. “The police can decide how to charge a case, but that is not binding on the district attorney here or in any other county in the state of Texas,” he said. “It may be less. It may be more. It may be the same.”
I heard him saying that the charge against Guyger could be elevated, could stay the same or could even be lowered by him when he gets to his desk as prosecutor and is able to read the file. When I called him, he referred me to the more detailed statement he had posted on Facebook during the campaign, when the Guyger-Jean case was a campaign issue.
In that statement, Creuzot said, “I am not aware of a case in which a person shoots another person in the torso, with death as the result, and is charged with manslaughter.”
He asked: “Is the fact that Guyger is a police officer the reason to bring a charge of manslaughter instead of murder? Jean’s family and this community deserve a transparent and rational explanation for the departure from standard charging protocols.”
But he also went on to warn people that Guyger’s attorneys will bring legitimate legal defenses against a murder charge, and he played out what those defenses probably will be: “Expect the defense to raise the issue of ‘mistake of fact,’” he said.
“How might mistake of fact apply to this case? Entering an apartment that you thought was yours. In other words, Officer Guyger’s defense could argue that she was not a trespasser or a burglar or someone intending to commit a criminal act, but rather someone who mistakenly entered the wrong apartment.”
Creuzot, a Democrat, drubbed Republican incumbent Faith Johnson in the Nov. 6 election by 143,021 votes or 20 percentage points. Yes, it was a good day for Democrats in Dallas County, but in most of the contested races where Democrats prevailed, their margin of victory was half Creuzot’s.
Johnson had conducted herself with dignity in office after the governor appointed her to fill a vacancy in early 2016. She should have been a stronger candidate. But at some point during the race, strings must have been pulled deep in the bottom-most fake-news bunker of the new Texas Republican Crazy Hairball Party. Loony, lying TV ads appeared accusing Creuzot of freeing scores of killers during his tenure on the bench, ostensibly sending them out with instructions to kill all the nice people.
Like so much of what we see and hear in the arena today, I thought the ads came off as darkly cuckoo. The landslide vote in Creuzot’s favor may have expressed a yearning in the electorate for a return to basic sanity.
So, back to my beef with my fellow practitioners of journalism and the business of guns. I am no expert — never military, never law enforcement. The only formal training I ever got was at church camp. But I know a bullet when I see one.
The New York Times ran a piece in the paper last Sunday about a new national data bank to identify guns used in crimes based on images of spent shell casings. In the story, the reporter managed to misidentify almost every single part of an ammunition cartridge.
Worse, I thought, was a faked-up photo at the top of the story that purported to show a bloody metal pan of the type into which the medical examiner on a TV show noisily clinks the bloody bullet just extracted with dripping forceps from a lukewarm corpse. The pan in the photo was laced with a red, blood-like stain.
A caption beneath the photo identified a red-stained object in the pan as a “cartridge case,” which should have raised the question: What on earth is a cartridge case doing in an autopsy pan and how did it get blood on it?
But the thing in the pan was not a cartridge case. It was a projectile, the part most people call the bullet. It was not the shell that contains the propellant that explodes and shoots the bullet out of the barrel.
And anyway again, the bullet in the pan was pristine, unmarked or deformed and clearly had never been fired, so somebody had to have bought it from a shelf of reloading supplies at a gun store in order to fake up the photo in the first place.
After a small horde of commenters complained about the obvious errors and fakery in the piece, the Times removed the caption from the photo in the online version and posted a notice saying, “the comments section is closed,” also providing helpful instructions for sending letters to the editor. I was unable to summon the energy.
Lack of understanding of guns can create a misleading portrayal of the way guns are fired and the way shooting incidents unwind. Shooting a gun is a long, clunky, awkward process — extracting it from the holster, maybe having to charge and cock the gun, maybe having to take off a manual safety, then aiming the gun, then pulling the trigger.
That’s why most gunfights are over before they start. Whoever gets the drop on the other guy wins. Once somebody has the drop on you, you’re already toasted. The gunfight almost never happens, because somebody usually gets shot before it starts.
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Too many media portrayals of gun violence leave out all of the steps leading up to the pulling of the trigger, as if the shooting itself is more like people just snapping their fingers at each other. Shooting involves much more than that in both intent and preparedness.
Cops know that. They do this stuff for a living. Cops get two kinds of training. They get political training at the academy, which is all about community relations and de-escalation. Then they get trainer training from their fellow officers, which is all about how to never get killed. Forget de-escalate. Pre-escalate.
None of that means cops can be allowed to murder people. But it can make cops a special case in the eyes of a jury. If the special peril faced by police is something the jury weighs in judging how Guyger handled her gun, then the murder charge Creuzot has suggested as appropriate may not be winnable for the prosecution — a point the News was making in its editorial.
I think we can trust Creuzot to figure that all out. I’m just glad to hear from somebody on this case who’s not demonstrably crazy.