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Amber Guyger's 10-year sentence and guilty verdict were proof that Black Lives Matter had an impact

The American understanding of race, policing and self-defense seems to slowly be shifting because of the work of activists to highlight racial disparities.
Image: Amber Guyger
Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger arrives at the Frank Crowley Courts Building in Dallas on Oct. 1, 2019.Jeremy Lock / Reuters

UPDATE (October 2, 2019, 5:14 pm. E.T.): Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the murder of Botham Jean after a two-day sentencing hearing.

When off-duty Dallas police officer Amber Guyger shot and killed an unarmed Botham Jean in his own apartment after she entered it without his authorization, I was almost certain that she would get away with it — as were many Black people. America has a long history of letting the murderers of unarmed Black people off the hook — whether in the thousands of sometimes anonymous and rarely prosecuted lynchings, in the death of Trayvon Martin at George Zimmerman’s hands, or in any of the cases of other Black men murdered by the cops whose names have become synonymous with Black Lives Matter, such as Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice or Philando Castile.

And, as the details of the case unfolded, it was increasingly clear that her explanation of how she came to enter someone else’s home and shoot him to death revealed a deep level of disregard for the basic standards of the training she had received from her own department. Yet, I didn’t dare to get my hopes up that justice would be served, especially not as the trial started and it became clear that Guyger’s defense relied on the enduring mythos of a white woman’s fragility to put Botham on trial for eating ice cream in his own home.

Botham JeanHarding University

And then, on top of the usual racist narrative that Botham’s race and size made him scary enough for Guyger to be justified in killing, the judge ruled during deliberations that the jury could consider the Castle Doctrine in their decision. Akin to the same legal logic as Stand Your Ground laws (which assert that someone who feels threatened has no duty to retreat), Castle Doctrine laws say that a person has right to defend themselves and their home with lethal force if they deem it necessary. Despite the fact, that it wasn’t her home, I was afraid that somehow Botham’s apartment would be considered Guyger’s castle to defend just long enough to let her off the hook for killing him.

Mine was not an unreasonable concern: Data shows that, in Florida — which had the first Stand Your Ground law — defendants who invoked it at trial were half as likely to be convicted if their victims were nonwhite. In the first seven years the Florida law was in effect, an analysis by the Tampa Bay Times suggested that 70 percent of defendants who invoked the law were likely to face no legal consequences. Nationwide data suggests that, when white people invoke the defense in cases involving black victims, they’re 11 times more likely to walk away than in the reverse situation.

Fortunately, the prosecution’s argument that Guyger made a series of unreasonable decisions that cost an innocent man his life worked and Guyger was convicted of murder Tuesday. Prosecutors were even able to use body cam footage of her behavior after the shooting — failing to render aid and heard worrying more about her job than the man whose life she had just taken — to prove their point that she hadn’t shown a reasonable level of concern or remorse. Her own testimony that she shot to kill even made their point that she had not chosen to act reasonably.

Her assertions of self-defense failed, as it was clear to both the general public and the jury that she had no right to enter someone else’s home, decide that he was a threat and kill him. It wasn’t the first time an attempt to argue a version of Stand Your Ground failed recently: Michael Drejka’s attempt to use it to justify shooting an unarmed Markeis McGlockton over a handicapped parking spot in July of 2018 failed this summer, and he was convicted of manslaughter. (Drejka’s sentencing is scheduled for Oct. 10.)

In Guyger’s case, despite her defense relying on the idea that Botham Jean was a threat because of his size and race, her actions and training belied her testimony. But, in many ways, her words mirrored that of Michael David Dunn who shot Jordan Davis after an argument over loud music in a parking lot and claimed he’d been threatened; Dunn, too, was convicted. Like Dunn and Drejka, Guyger seemed to be certain that, despite being the only armed person present, her fear (or annoyance) justified taking a person’s life.

There is an argument to be made that someone like Guyger (who was a trained law enforcement officer) rightly should have been held to a higher standard for use of lethal force, and perhaps that was a factor in her conviction. But, much like with Drejka and Dunn, there’s a fundamental flaw in any legal doctrine that positions white equanimity as more valuable than a human life. Twisting the idea of “a right to self-defense” to the point that a person can kill over annoyance that someone is using a parking space or playing loud music, let alone over supposed confusion about what floor she is on, beggars all logic and reasoning.

In many ways the convictions of Guyger, Dunn and Drejka reflect the slowly shifting tenor of American ideas around race, self-defense and policing. As the message that Black Lives Matter permeates the culture — albeit slowly and inconsistently — juries are starting to reject defense arguments that the mere presence of a Black person is a threat to a well-armed white person. Black Lives Matter has been effective, despite criticism that the slogan should be “All Lives Matter,” and despite the investigation by Trump’s FBI of “black identity extremism” (like Black Lives Matter) as a potential terrorist movement.

Black Lives Matter persevered despite the responses in New York City and other cities like Chicago with long histories of police brutality that positioned Black people wanting to live as an attack on police. Whether it was Blue Lives Matter protests, the Oath Keepers staring them down with guns in St. Louis and all the various efforts to intimidate the organizers, discredit the intentions and discourage people from participating, Black Lives Matter has continued to be a message that permeated American culture, in a continuation of the anti-lynching crusades that can be traced back to the 1890s and Ida B. Welles Barnett.

It's clear from the verdict that some part of America has been listening to over a 100 years of assertions that Black life matters. Perhaps, at last, American justice for the deaths of unarmed Black people is merely deferred and not denied.