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Jury finds former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger guilty of murder of Botham Jean

Judge's gavel. (Staff Sgt. Nicholas Rau/U.S. Air Force)

A jury found former police officer Amber Guyger guilty of murder in the fatal shooting of Botham Jean in Dallas.

Jurors started deliberating Monday afternoon in the murder trial. They came forward with the verdict Tuesday morning.

Court resumed Tuesday afternoon for the sentencing phase of the trial, at which the victim’s family is expected to testify. Guyger, 31, could face anywhere from five years to up to life in prison. The jury will decide her punishment after hearing more testimony in the sentencing phase.

In the courthouse, people responded to the guilty verdict with cheers, prayers and tears. Someone yelled, “Thank you, Jesus!” and people danced in the hallway outside the courtroom as a crowd celebrated. Guyger sat alone, weeping, at the defense table.

Attorney Ben Crump, speaking on behalf of the Jean family, said history was made with the verdict. He evoked the names of several people of color killed by police across the country.

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“This verdict is for Trayvon Martin. It’s for Michael Brown. It’s for Sandra Bland. It’s for Tamir Rice. It’s for Eric Garner …” said Crump, who represented Brown’s family after the 18-year-old was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. “This verdict is for them.”

Jean family attorney Lee Merritt added the family wouldn’t immediately provide a comment Tuesday morning. They could be seen embracing after the verdict was read.

“We still have the sentencing phase to go, but this is a huge victory not only for the family of Botham Jean but … this is a victory for black people in America,” Merritt said. “It’s a signal that the tide is going to change here.”

Jurors had heard six days of testimony and deliberated for almost five hours before reaching their verdict.

As they began their second day of deliberations Tuesday morning, the jurors deciding Gugyer’s fate asked questions seeking clarity.

The jurors were weighing whether Guyger, a white police officer, should be found guilty of murder, manslaughter or no crime at all in the shooting death of Jean, her 26-year-old unarmed black neighbor. In September 2018, Guyger entered Jean’s apartment, mistaking it for her own, and thought he was an intruder, she testified. She had just finished working a shift for the Dallas Police Department and was still in uniform when she shot Jean with her service weapon. The department fired her after the shooting.

The jury asked the court on Tuesday morning for a definition of manslaughter and more information on Texas’ Castle Doctrine, or “stand your ground defense,” which they were allowed to consider in this case, according to one of the civil attorneys who represents Jean’s family, Daryl Washington. CourtTV reported the judge told jurors they already had all the information they needed.

During closing arguments, Dallas County prosecutor Jason Hermus said he rejected the notion it’s reasonable for a trained Dallas police officer with five years of service to shoot an unarmed, innocent man in the chest.

Guyger’s defense attorney Toby Shook said in his closing arguments that the law protects people in certain circumstances who make mistakes based on incorrect assumptions and that the state must rule out every possible reasonable doubt, or the jury must hand down a not guilty verdict. He said the shooting was a tragic mistake.

Prosecutors have said they didn’t believe the Castle Doctrine should apply in this case because the law is designed to allow people to protect themselves in their own homes, and Guyger shot Jean in his apartment.

Prosecutors also argued that Jean was shot while he was sitting on the couch and perhaps trying to get up. He had been sitting in his living room eating ice cream. They also presented evidence that there was no blood on Guyger’s clothing and the gloves she possessed were unsoiled, indicating she might not have given CPR to Jean.

Guyger testified that Jean was coming toward her when she fired her gun, and that she couldn’t see his hands and didn’t know if he was armed. She was afraid he was going to kill her, she said.

During cross-examination, when Guyger was asked whether she intended to kill Jean, she replied that she did.

Crump, a civil attorney for the family of Botham Jean, said in an emailed statement after the verdict: “Nothing will bring Botham back, but today his family has found some measure of justice. What happened on September 6, 2018, is clear to everyone: This officer saw a black man and shot, without reason and without justification. The jury’s thoughtful verdict sets a powerful precedent for future cases, telling law enforcement officers that they cannot hide behind the badge but instead will face justice for their wrongful actions.”

The jury that convicted Guyger was largely made up of women and people of color.

During the punishment phase of the trial, defense attorneys could try to interject the idea that Guyger was overcome by sudden passion. If the judge will allow that argument, a true funding on sudden passion would reduce the penalty that Guyger could face to two to 20 years in prison.

Otherwise the punishment phase likely will be replete with testimony from witnesses willing to vouch for Guyger’s good character, and family and friends of Jean, who will tell the jury what his loss has meant to the family and to the community.

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© 2019 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram