Amber Guyger Conviction: Anomaly or New Direction?

“Dallas County Court House”by jimmywayne is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Hunter Poindexter, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

I. Introduction

On October 1, 2019, a Dallas County jury convicted former police officer Amber Guyger of murdering twenty-six-year-old Botham Jean in his apartment.[1] Guyger’s case sparked national attention and maintained the focus of numerous media outlets.[2] The incident was unique from most police-involved shootings; a white female off-duty police officer shot and killed an unarmed black man after she mistakenly entered his apartment on her way home from work.[3] While Guyger was convicted and sentenced to ten years in prison, one significant question still remains: what impact, if any, does this high-profile case have on future prosecutions of police misconduct?  

II. Background

On September 6, 2018, Amber Guyger entered into what she thought was her apartment after a thirteen and a half hour shift.[4] However, Guyger did not walk into her apartment; rather, she entered the apartment of Botham Jean.[5] Upon seeing Jean, Guyger became concerned that he was an intruder and subsequently shot Jean in the chest twice, killing him.[6] Three days after Jean’s death, Guyger was arrested on one count of manslaughter. Following Guyger’s arrest, the Dallas Police Department terminated her employment.[7] Although Guyger was initially charged with manslaughter, a grand jury formally indicted her for Jean’s murder two months after the shooting.[8]

Guyger’s murder trial began on September 23, 2019.[9] Prosecutors argued that Guyger acted unreasonably in shooting Jean, asserting that Guyger missed several obvious signs that she was on the wrong floor of her apartment complex.[10] Alternatively, Guyger’s defense counsel contended that Guyger was tired after her shift, and that she reasonably acted in self-defense under Texas’s Castle Doctrine.[11] Following closing arguments, the jury returned a guilty verdict and sentenced Guyger to ten years in prison.[12]

Guyger’s case received significant media attention.[13] However, this case is far from the first high-profile police shooting in the past decade.[14] What makes Guyger’s case unique is the fact that she was prosecuted and convicted. Prosecutions for police shootings, let alone convictions, are uncommon.[15] According to one study, nearly one thousand police-involved shootings occur each year; however, from 2005 to 2017, only eighty police officers were arrested for murder or manslaughter in relation to an on-duty shooting.[16] Of those eighty officers arrested, twenty-eight would be convicted by 2017.[17] While the number of officers arrested and convicted pales in comparison to the number of officer-involved shootings, it should be noted that the majority of deadly police shootings are found to be justified; in 2015, ninety-eight percent of all fatal police shootings were deemed justified.[18]  

III. An Anomaly?

Guyger’s highly publicized conviction poses an interesting question as to how future instances of police misconduct might be prosecuted. Before that question can be explored, it is first necessary to discuss the possibility that Guyger’s case is an outlier of the norm. That is, this incident is somewhat atypical of other high-profile police-involved shootings. 

Guyger was off-duty when she killed Jean. This was not an incident of Guyger shooting someone in her official capacity as a police officer; rather, this shooting occurred while Guyger was coming home from a shift. Moreover, this wasn’t a case of an intruder breaking into Guyger’s home. Guyger, herself, had unlawfully entered Jean’s apartment and shot him. Thus, it is plausible that the jury decided this case on the merits, without any regard to Guyger’s status as a police officer. Should this be the case, Guyger’s conviction might not have any bearing on how prosecutors try police misconduct cases in the future.

IV. The Future of Police Prosecutions

To gain a better understanding of the impact of Guyger’s case, it is necessary to first look at the balancing act prosecutors must apply when bringing charges against police officers.  Prosecutors often rely on the testimony of police officers to maintain convictions against criminal defendants.[19] As such, prosecutors generally seek to build strong relationships with police departments.[20] On the other hand, prosecutors also have a duty “to seek justice.”[21] In instances of police misconduct, prosecutors must balance their relationship with local police and the need to provide justice to the public.[22]

In addition to this balancing act, prosecutors – particularly elected district attorneys – are often concerned with their reputation, as public perception may impact election results.[23] Should prosecutors act contrary to the will of the public, their constituents may hold them accountable during election cycles.[24] In Guyger’s case, the public outcry for justice was swift.[25] After Jean’s murder, protesters in Dallas took to the streets.[26] While it is unclear why the Dallas District Attorney sought a murder charge for Guyger after her manslaughter arrest, it is possible that the public’s demand for justice led to an increased charge. 

Prosecutors in the Guyger trial won a difficult case, as convictions of white female police officers are rare.[27] Moreover, Guyger was sentenced to a decade in prison.[28] While a broad faction of the public was unhappy with the sentence,[29] it should be noted that Guyger’s sentence falls significantly above the average sentence length for on-duty police officers involved in shootings.[30] Prior to the Guyger case, prosecutions for police-involved shootings were uncommon.[31] Most of the time, these shootings were deemed to be justified;[32] however, there are likely instances in which prosecutors drop or lower charges against officers to avoid conflicts with local police.[33] The Guyger case might change this dynamic. 

The public outpouring following Jean’s murder indicated the community’s desire for justice. With this public support, the prosecution achieved an uncommon murder conviction in a vastly publicized trial. Because of the success and public support of Guyger’s prosecution in Dallas, district attorneys across the country might view this as an opportunity to increase prosecutions for police misconduct, especially in high-profile shootings. This will be particularly true if these prosecutions lead to increased job security for the district attorneys by way of reelection. However, this might also prove to be a double-edged sword for prosecutors, as they may find themselves lacking the vital support of the police force. Ultimately, the decision on whether to prosecute police misconduct cases may boil down to public support versus the need for police assistance. Nonetheless, Guyger’s conviction might open the door for more prosecutions in prominent cases of police violence. 

V. Immediate Aftermath

On October 12, 2019, just eleven days following Guyger’s conviction, a Fort Worth, Texas, police officer shot and killed a woman in her home while responding to a call for a safety check.[34] The victim, twenty-eight-year-old Atatiana Jefferson, had been playing video games with her nephew just moments before she was killed.[35] The police officer, Aaron Dean, resigned from his position with the Fort Worth Police Department, and he was arrested and charged with murder two days after the shooting.[36]

The Fort Worth shooting is significant as it pertains to Guyger’s case for a number of reasons. First, Dallas and Fort Worth neighbor one another and are located within the same metropolitan area.[37] Therefore, the Fort Worth shooting cannot be analyzed in a vacuum; the Guyger shooting almost certainly has an impact on this subsequent case, particularly because both shootings impacted the same community. Therefore, the public pressures felt by Dallas prosecutors to try Guyger are likely the same pressures impacting prosecutors and police in Fort Worth.

 Secondly, Dean was charged with murder only two days following the shooting. As mentioned throughout this post, charges for police-involved shootings are exceedingly rare.[38] Guyger’s conviction could explain this discrepancy. With Guyger’s conviction occurring less than two weeks prior to this incident, the public support for charging Dean with murder was likely high, especially in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Moreover, the fact pattern of the Fort Worth shooting is significantly similar to the Guyger shooting. As such, police and prosecutors likely believed that the Fort Worth shooting, like the Guyger shooting, would yield a murder conviction.

What is fascinating about the Fort Worth shooting was the number of law enforcement entities calling for Dean to be brought to justice. Shortly after the shooting, Fort Worth Interim Police Chief Ed Kraus stated that there was “no excuse” for the shooting, and that Dean “will be held accountable.”[39] Moreover, a police detective in Fort Worth publicly called on other law enforcement officers to apologize for Jefferson’s death.[40] With this backdrop, it appears that the prosecutorial balancing act weighs heavily in favor of vigorously prosecuting Dean, as both local law enforcement and the public seek justice for Atatiana Jefferson. 

VI. Conclusion

Dallas County prosecutors achieved a relatively unprecedented conviction for Amber Guyger. While Guyger’s conviction is significant, it may be considered an anomaly from other police-involved shootings, and thus the case may have no bearing on future prosecutions. However, Guyger’s case also has the possibility of shifting the way in which prosecutors view police misconduct cases. Because of the public support for trying Guyger for murder, other district attorneys across the United States might consider vigorously prosecuting police misconduct, so long as these prosecutions do not significantly damage their relationships with local police forces. In the Fort Worth shooting incident, prosecutors do not appear to have their normal balancing burdens; rather, both the law enforcement and the public favor holding Dean accountable for Jefferson’s murder. 


[1]Jake Bleiberg, Jury convicts Amber Guyger, ex-police officer who fatally shot neighbor, Boston Globe (Oct. 1, 2019), https://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2019/10/01/jury-convicts-amber-guyger-police-officer-who-fatally-shot-neighbor/5rQx7kHIRxYy1DoSC0vrSP/story.html [https://perma.cc/778B-BUHR].

[2]David Tarrant, News media all-in on Amber Guyger trial as viewers watch live-stream feeds, Dallas Morning News (September 23, 2019), https://www.dallasnews.com/news/crime/2019/09/23/news-media-all-in-on-amber-guyger-trial-as-viewers-watch-live-stream-feeds/ [https://perma.cc/F64D-UWYL].

[3]Bleiberg, supra note 1.

[4]Bill Hutchinson, Death of an Innocent Man: Timeline of wrong-apartment murder trial of Amber Guyger, ABC News (Oct. 2, 2019), https://abcnews.go.com/US/death-innocent-man-timeline-wrong-apartment-murder-trial/story?id=65938727 [https://perma.cc/PA3Y-K88M]. 

[5]Id. 

[6]Id. 

[7]Id. 

[8]Id. 

[9]Id. 

[10]Darran Simon & Eliott C. McLaughlin, Prosecutor says Amber Guyger missed signs she was in the wrong apartment before she shot Botham Jean, CNN (September 24, 2019, 12:34 AM), https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/23/us/amber-guyger-murder-trial-botham-jean/index.html [https://perma.cc/9MHV-DPXV].

[11]Erik Ortiz, Jurors in Amber Guyger murder trial are considering Texas’ Castle Doctrine, NBC News (Oct. 1, 2019), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/jurors-amber-guyger-murder-trial-are-considering-texas-castle-doctrine-n1060746 [https://perma.cc/TU7Z-FTKK]. 

[12]Eliott C. McLaughlin, Amber Guyger gets 10-year murder sentence for fatally shooting Botham Jean, CNN (Oct. 3, 2009), https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/02/us/amber-guyger-trial-sentencing/index.html [https://perma.cc/7R77-DU4U].

[13]David Tarrant, News media all-in on Amber Guyger trial as viewers watch live-stream feeds, Dallas Morning News (September 23, 2019), https://www.dallasnews.com/news/crime/2019/09/23/news-media-all-in-on-amber-guyger-trial-as-viewers-watch-live-stream-feeds/ [https://perma.cc/F64D-UWYL].

[14]Josh Hafner, Police killings of black men in the U.S. and what happened to the officers, USA Today (March 29, 2018), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation-now/2018/03/29/police-killings-black-men-us-and-what-happened-officers/469467002/[https://perma.cc/64V2-NLP3]

[15]Madison Park, Police Shootings: Trials, convictions are rare for officers, CNN (Oct. 3, 2018), https://www.cnn.com/2017/05/18/us/police-involved-shooting-cases/index.html [https://perma.cc/C75K-7UYG].

[16]Philip M. Stinson, Police Shootings: What We Know and What We Don’t Know, Criminal Justice Faculty Publications 78 (2017).

[17]Id.

[18]Id.

[19]Caleb J. Robertson, Restoring Public Confidence in the Criminal Justice System: Policing Prosecutions When Prosecutors Prosecute Police, 67 Emory L. J. 853, 866 (2018). 

[20]Id. at 867. 

[21]Id. at 860. 

[22]Id. at 867. 

[23]Ronald F. Wright, How Prosecutor Elections Fail Us, 6 Ohio St. J. Crim. L. 581 (2009).

[24]Id.  

[25]Tom Dart, Dallas: calls for justice after police officer kills man in his own home, The Guardian (Sep. 13, 2018), https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/sep/13/dallas-activists-demand-justice-after-officer-kills-botham-jean-in-his-own-apartment [https://perma.cc/GZ7J-CJM7].

[26]Jason Whitely & Ryan Osborne, Dozens protest over Botham Jean shooting, briefly shutting down I-30, WFAA (September 14, 2018), https://www.wfaa.com/article/news/special-reports/botham-jean/dozens-protest-over-botham-jean-shooting-briefly-shutting-down-i-30/287-594591173 [https://perma.cc/XV7D-4F85]. 

[27]See Janell Ross, Amber Guyger conviction highlights role image, notions of character play in trials, NBC News (Oct. 4, 2019), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/amber-guyger-conviction-highlights-role-image-notions-character-play-trials-n1062216 [https://perma.cc/Z7G5-CU9S].

[28]Eliott C. McLaughlin, Amber Guyger gets 10-year murder sentence for fatally shooting Botham Jean, CNN (Oct. 3, 2009), https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/02/us/amber-guyger-trial-sentencing/index.html [https://perma.cc/7R77-DU4U].

[29]Ashley Killough & Madeline Holcombe, Emotions run high in and outside courtroom after Amber Guyger sentenced to 10 years for Botham Jean’s murder, CNN (Oct. 3, 2019), https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/03/us/botham-jean-amber-guyger-trial-wrap/index.html [https://perma.cc/3ZF6-ESSY]

[30]Philip M. Stinson, Police Shootings: What We Know and What We Don’t Know, Criminal Justice Faculty Publications 78 (2017) (with the average sentence for the twenty-eight convictions being forty-eight months). 

[31]See Philip M. Stinson, Police Shootings: What We Know and What We Don’t Know, Criminal Justice Faculty Publications 78 (2017).

[32]See id. 

[33]Peter A. Joy & Kevin C. McMunigal, Police Misconduct and Release-Dismissal Agreements, 33 Crim. Just. 31 (2018) (citing Peter A. Joy & Kevin C. McMunigal, Prosecutorial Conflicts of Interest and Excessive Use of Force by Police, 30 Crim. Just. 47 (2015)). 

[34]Holly Yan, Atatiana Jefferson’s nephew watched her get killed by Fort Worth police. The aut may have saved the boy’s life, CNN (Oct. 14, 2019), https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/14/us/atatiana-jefferson-profile-fort-worth-woman-shot-by-police/index.html [https://perma.cc/P5EL-XZLX].

[35]Id.

[36]Holly Yan et al., Former Fort Worth police officer charged with murder for killing Atatiana Jefferson in her own home, CNN (Oct. 14, 2019), https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/14/us/fort-worth-police-shooting-atatiana-jefferson/index.html [https://perma.cc/W8QT-VYYU].

[37]Frank Heinz, DFW Fastest Growing Metro in US, Fort Worth Moves Up 13thLargest City, NBC DFW (May 23, 2019), https://www.nbcdfw.com/news/local/DFW-Fastest-Growing-Metro-in-US-Fort-Worth-Moves-Up-13th-Largest-City-510330671.html [https://perma.cc/V58U-6UKZ].

[38]See Philip M. Stinson, Police Shootings: What We Know and What We Don’t Know, Criminal Justice Faculty Publications 78 (2017).

[39]Erin Donaghue, “No excuse”: Fort Worth police chief vows officer who killed black woman in her home will be held accountable, CBS News (Oct. 15, 2019), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/fort-worth-news-conference-police-chief-ed-kraus-update-investigation-officer-aaron-dean-live-stream-2019-10-15/ [https://perma.cc/H83E-63BT].

[40]Scottie Andrew, A Fort Worth police officer urges cops to apologize for Atatiana Jefferson’s shooting death, CNN (Oct. 16, 2019), https://www.cnn.com/2019/10/16/us/fort-worth-police-atatiana-jefferson-trnd/index.html [https://perma.cc/9GFW-3LMD].

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