Empathy And Forgiveness At Amber Guyger’s Trial
“For some legal observers, there was only one word for the Amber Guyger guilty verdict on Tuesday: stunning,” the Dallas Morning News reported. “That’s because a police officer likely never even would have been charged just a few years ago.” Between 1973 and 2016, there were no Dallas police officers who faced murder charges for killing a civilian, and Guyger was only the third convicted of murder in over 40 years. Commentators found it remarkable that the jury returned a guilty verdict on murder, not manslaughter. Jurors did so even after they received an instruction on the castle doctrine defense, which allows Texas homeowners to stand their ground and shoot people they believe to be intruders.
Guyger came home from work one night in September 2018 and entered the wrong apartment, one floor directly above hers. She testified that she believed she had found an intruder in her apartment, so she pulled her service weapon and opened fire. In fact, she had entered Jean’s apartment and fatally shot him in his own home. When he was killed, Jean too had just returned from a day at work and was eating ice cream on his couch.
“It is relatively rare for U.S. police officers to be convicted of murder for shooting people they view as suspects” reports Reuters. “But unlike other recent high-profile killings, such as those of Michael Brown in Missouri and Philando Castile in Minnesota, Guyger was not on duty or responding to a reported crime when she pulled the trigger.” Two of the three police officers convicted of murder for killing civilians in Dallas County over the past 40 years were off duty at the time. Being off duty matters because it means that Guyger received none of the legal or nonlegal deference usually given to officers who claim they hurt or killed civilians because they were in reasonable fear for their safety.
Some have attributed the guilty verdict to the fact that the jury was diverse: Of the 12 jurors, five were black, five were Hispanic or Asian, and two were white. Months before the trial, in fact, Guyger’s lawyers filed a motion to have it moved to a different county because of the publicity. “But observers saw another potential motivation: Dallas County is nearly 40 percent Hispanic, 30 percent white, 22 percent black and 6 percent Asian,” reports the New York Times. “The alternative counties the lawyers suggested moving the trial to were mostly white and had more politically conservative voting records.” The judge kept the case in Dallas County.
The diversity of the jury, according to William Snowden of the Vera Institute of Justice, may have meant more sympathy for Jean. “In cases in which police officers have not been convicted of killing an unarmed person, there is sometimes a lot of sympathy and empathy for the police officer,” he told Slate. “A non-diverse jury may have more sympathy for law enforcement than they do the actual decedent; it may believe that the decedent is not worthy of sympathy but police officers are.”
This is almost certainly true, but for this jury, empathy for Jean did not come with bloodthirst for Guyger. Texas is one of the few states where juries decide sentences, and this jury could have sentenced Guyger to a maximum of 99 years in prison. Instead, it gave her 10. Ten years is, objectively, a very long time to spend in prison, but it is not long compared to the time that people, especially people of color, regularly receive for far lesser offenses in this country. In response, activists and others have decried that disparity. They are right to point out the disparity: The system is racist. But demanding more time for Guyger will not free anyone serving draconian sentences. It will, instead, ensure that more people, especially people of color, receive those kinds of sentences going forward.
Of all the twists in Amber Guyger’s trial, the most surprising moment came when Jean’s 18-year-old brother, Brandt Jean, took the stand to make a victim impact statement. These kinds of statements are traditionally used by prosecutors to play on sympathies and obtain the longest possible sentence. “The rise of victim-impact evidence can’t be understood apart from Reagan’s efforts to establish federal sentencing guidelines, and, more broadly, to refashion the federal judiciary,” writes Jill Lepore in The New Yorker. The logic behind victim-impact statements, she writes, “rests on both the therapeutic, speak-your-truth commitment of a trauma-centered feminism and the punitive, lock-them-up imperative of law-and-order conservatism.”
But that was not apparent when Brandt Jean took the stand. In an intimate tone, he said, “If you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you.” He tugged at his collar and told her he did not want her to go to prison at all. “I want the best for you because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do, and the best would be give your life to Christ,” he said. Then he looked at the judge. “Can I give her a hug, please?” Brandt asked. After a moment of silence he pleaded, “Please.” The judge assented, and Brandt Jean stepped down from the stand and embraced Guyger for nearly a full minute as she sobbed.
Brandt Jean has received significant criticism for forgiving his brother’s killer, but as activist and abolitionist Mariame Kaba noted on Twitter, “Once again, the folks yelling loudest about being victim-centered usually only try to live up to that if the victim’s behavior conforms to their values.”
Brandt Jean did not receive nearly as much criticism as the judge, Tammy Kemp, did for her embrace of Guyger, which was, for some, even more surprising. This came after she had hugged Jean’s family. She approached Guyger and handed her a Bible. Guyger leaped up to hug the judge. Kemp hesitated, and then returned Guyger’s embrace.
The ethics of a judge bringing religion into the courtroom can be debated, but showing empathy for all parties is decidedly a step in the right direction.
“The picture of the judge hugging Amber is challenging, mainly because I have represented hundreds, probably thousands of people and not once has a judge ever stepped down from the bench and hugged one of my clients,” Patrice James, a former public defender and current director of community justice at the Shriver Center on Poverty Law, wrote on Facebook. “Why not? Maybe what this judge did should be the norm. But also maybe my clients would hate it maybe I would hate it. But it showed me that the judge saw humanity in Amber. I wish more judges had seen the humanity in my clients.”
Even the prosecutor, who had pushed for a longer sentence, accepted the 10 years and spoke admiringly of Brandt Jean. Dallas County District Attorney John Creuzot called his embrace of Guyger “an amazing act of healing and forgiveness that is rare in today’s society.” If the 18-year-old “can heal and express healing in that fashion, in his words and in his deeds, I would hope that the greater community, not just Dallas but all of Texas and all of the United States, could gain a message from that,” Creuzot told reporters.
This statement stands in stark contrast to Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance’s reaction to a case his office recently prosecuted, where the victim’s family pleaded for lenience. Vance’s office prosecuted Thomas Gilbert Jr., a privileged 35-year-old man who killed his financier father after his allowance was cut. Gilbert has struggled with schizophrenia since he was a teenager. Nevertheless, Gilbert was convicted and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years, the maximum penalty allowed under the law. Gilbert’s mother, Shelley Gilbert, who was the wife of the victim, urged the court to give the lightest possible sentence because of her son’s mental illness. She pleaded with the judge to send her son to a psychiatric facility. “I ask that you give him a chance and give him hope for his future,” she said, her voice shaking. “I know this is what my husband would have wanted for him.”
As if he had not heard the victim’s wife at all, Vance said: “The defendant has finally been held accountable and he will serve a life sentence for this unconscionable crime. While nothing can undo the tragedy of Mr. Gilbert’s death, I hope that the resolution of this case helps his loved [ones] as they continue to heal from this devastating loss.”