The day after a Dallas judge decided to keep the murder trial local for a white former Dallas cop who shot and killed an unarmed Black man, the victim’s family attorney called the decision an early win.
“It doesn’t change the legal strategy,” Lee Merritt told Atlanta Black Star Tuesday in a phone interview.
But moving the trial to a county more likely to have a whiter and more conservative jury “would’ve been highly problematic,” he said.
In a case that has garnered national media attention, Amber Guyger is accused of murdering PwC associate Botham Jean after she walked into his apartment, allegedly thinking it was her own, and fatally shot him Sept. 6, 2018 in Dallas.
Her defense, citing worries regarding jury impartiality, filed a motion to have the case moved to one of six counties: Collin, Ellis, Fannin, Grayson, Kaufman or Rockwall.
Judge Tammy Kemp announced Monday that the case would stay in Dallas County, Merritt said.
The communities listed in the defense’s motion haven’t experienced the “often hostility and racism” the more diverse Dallas County population has, Merritt said.
“The reason that we see law enforcement often acquitted for what can be fairly egregious behavior … is these cases are often tried in communities that give automatic credibility to anything law enforcement says.”
Dallas County is not one of those, Merritt said describing it as a “bastion of diversity in North Texas.”
The county’s population is about 29 percent white, 23 percent Black and 41 percent Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“The first battle has been won,” Merritt said on Twitter. “This case will remain in Dallas. Judge Kemp has denied the defendant’s frivolous motion for a change in venue. A jury has been selected and trial will commence next Monday.”
The case relies heavily on Guyger’s claim that she thought Jean was an intruder when she shot him.
Guyger’s attorneys, Michael Mowla, Robert Rogers and Toby Shook, argued in court in July that the Dallas County jury pool had been “poisoned” by media publicity and a “false narrative” that race motivated the shooting.
Guyger’s attorneys presented 297 news articles in court to prove that since Jean’s death there had been “pervasive, prejudicial, and inflammatory media-coverage in the community, replete with falsehoods and speculation.”
“This coverage has ranged from the absurd … to the outrageous,” the attorneys said in court documents.
Merritt, however, said race is very much so a factor in the case along with the facts at hand.
He said there were several signs that Guyger was in the wrong apartment, which her experience as a police offer should have made her acutely aware of.
He listed the red carpeted mat outside of Jean’s door and an entry system that would have triggered a chime to ring if Guyger had stuffed her key in the proper door.
He also mentioned new smells and sights that should have alerted Guyger that she was in the wrong apartment.
“She had to disregard all of that and say, ‘I’m in my house, and this is an intruder,’” Merritt said.
He added that the defense is also arguing that Guyger was off duty at the time of the shooting.
“She was not off duty,” Merritt said. “The law in Texas is if a police officer encounters a crime, they are immediately clocked back in.”
Guyger heard noise and was required by procedure in Dallas County to shield the door and call for backup.
“Instead, she barged in and began firing,” Merritt said.
He added, Botham’s case is not “an anomaly.”
It’s just like the case of Black 15-year-old Jordan Edwards, Black 12-year-old Tamir Rice, Black 27-year-old Eric Garner and Black 37-year-old Alton Sterling, who were all unarmed when they were killed by police officers, Merritt said.
In Guyger’s case, the situation should have been deescalated, Merritt said.
“Instead she relied on an instinct, a racist instinct,” the attorney said.
Guyger’s aunt Nancy Bishop argued in an op-ed published online July 1 in The Dallas Morning News that her niece is not racist.
“What happened the night of Sept. 6, 2018, was different from other incidents that drew national attention when white police officers killed Michael Brown, Walter Lamar Scott, Stephon Clark and other black men,” Bishop said.
She mentioned transcripts from a 911 dispatcher call.
“‘She repeated more than a dozen times, ‘I thought it was my apartment’ and also uttered, ‘I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry,’” Bishop said.
“Would a racist police officer have this type of initial reaction, or was this response from someone who realized this was a horrific accident,” Bishop asked.