Article Thumbnail

How to Kill a Black Man Twice in America: The Botham Jean Story

The character assassination that follows the actual assassination of black victims of police violence is all too familiar — and equally tragic

On September 6th, a warm Thursday night in Dallas, Botham Jean was shot and killed by his neighbor — a cop. There’s no good way or good day to die in Dallas, but Jean’s death was particularly bad and confusing. It made absolutely no sense. No one expects to be killed by a cop when they’re home alone on their couch on a weeknight, minding their own business.

Not even a black man in America.

But when 30-year-old Amber Guyger returned to her apartment complex after a long day at work, she made the first in a series of mistakes that would ultimately lead to her killing Jean: She parked her car on the wrong floor in the parking garage. Next, she walked from the garage to what she believed was her apartment. It was not. It was the apartment one floor directly above hers. Once there, though, she found signs of entry. The door was ajar. She pushed it open and stepped into the darkened apartment to investigate, still operating under the assumption that she was creeping into her own apartment. Once inside, the off-duty cop encountered the “dark silhouette” of a man (i.e., the man who lived there — Jean, a 26-year-old bachelor). Guyger drew her service firearm. Still dressed in her full uniform, she pointed her hand gun at the figure, instructing him to comply with her orders.

But then, apparently fearing for her safety, Guyger decided she needed to use deadly force. She fired two shots. One missed its target. But the other found its deadly aim. The shot tore into the innocent man’s chest, subduing him. After she shot Jean in the center of his body mass — just as she was trained to do — Guyger turned on the lights and realized she wasn’t in her apartment after all. She must have entered the wrong door. She exited the apartment and called 911.

It was 9:59 p.m. local time.

Police and Dallas Fire Rescue arrived at the fresh crime scene within four minutes. EMTs began to perform first aid on Jean, before deciding to transport him to Baylor University Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.

That at least was the initial official version of how a white cop walks in and kills a black man in his own home in Texas. The story would change as time passed.

Whatever the official telling, though, none of it makes sense.

In fact, as soon as the news broke on social media, internet detectives went to work. It didn’t take them long to prove why Guyger’s story didn’t hold up under even the slightest scrutiny. Soon thereafter, tabloids like the Daily Mail posted videos that proved how key aspects of Guyger’s story strained credulity. For example, her memory of Jean’s door being ajar, which was impossible without a doorstop (something Jean didn’t have). Not to mention, the bright red doormat. Jean had one; Guyger did not. As such, people online started asking (fairly obvious) questions. Questions like:

  • Why couldn’t a cop detect that she wasn’t in her own place? After all, apartments have smells and oddly-specific sensations like the sound of the floor in your entryway.
  • Why didn’t Guyger turn on the lights when she walked in? Especially if the door was open. Why would a woman walk into a dark room knowing there could be danger?
  • Most of all, though, why was she so quick on the trigger? Can anyone be that tired or confused? Was she high? Drunk? Or was she just that racist?

The week after the shooting followed a predictable script of action and reaction, which made what came next entirely foreseeable: Eight days after he’d been shot and killed, local news media helped the Dallas PD murder Botham Jean a second time. This second murder, however, was just as unsurprising as the first. In America, there’s practically a national guarantee that a black person’s wrongful death will be pinned on them. More specifically, questions will be raised by the news media that make viewers and readers wonder, at the encouragement of the police: Could it have been the black person’s fault?

This question gets raised in many ways, some subtle, some direct, until the eventual story that emerges makes it almost seem reasonable to believe the murdered black person deserved to die: They could’ve done something. No doubt, they share some responsibility for their death. So it’s no tragedy. That’s what happens to people who invite death — eventually, it shows up.

And so, this is story of the murder of Botham Jean.

It’s also the story of how to kill a black man twice in America.

* * * * *

Originally, Dallas PD presumed this was a cut-and-dry officer-involved shooting. But soon the department realized it wasn’t that at all. Here’s how Dallas Chief of Police Renee Hall explained it at a press conference the day after the shooting, “At the very early stages of this investigation, initial indications were that they were what we consider circumstances of an officer-involved shooting. However, as we continued this investigation, it became clear that we were dealing with what appears to be a much different and very unique situation.”

What made the shooting a “very unique situation” wasn’t explained. Hall did say that Dallas PD “have ceased handling it under our normal officer-involved shooting protocol. A blood sample was drawn to test for drugs and alcohol. We are in the process of obtaining a warrant. And we have also invited the Texas Rangers to conduct an independent investigation.”

At this point, Guyger’s name had yet to be shared with the press. That, of course, means nothing when you have the internet. Her name and badge number were already circulating online. Internet detectives also discovered her social media accounts long before she was able to delete them, and so, they were able to post several of Guyger’s pictures from Facebook — mostly her problematic family photos, such as one that featured her with a woman assumed to be her grandmother, who was wearing an All Lives Matter shirt.

There was another where a man presumed to be her brother was flashing a racist hand sign.

More confusingly, there was one photo that purported to show Jean and Guyger together at a party. They were in a group shot, which raised the question online: Were they smashing?

Is that Botham Jean and Amber Guyger… or nah?

It emerged as a legit angle to consider: Cop walks into neighbor’s apartment and shoots him dead on a Thursday night after a long day at work. Was this a doomed romantic relationship? Is that what made this a “very unique situation”?

Naturally, the rumors took on a life of their own online.

In the meantime, something to keep in mind about Chief of Police Renee Hall is that she’s also a black woman. She’s the very accomplished daughter of a Detroit cop who was shot and killed while on-duty. Her father was 27 at the time. Shaped by that tragedy, Hall grew up to be just like her dad. She graduated from the FBI National Academy and went on to become a Detroit cop. She worked for the department for 18 years, and over that time, she rose to the rank of deputy chief.

All of which means, too, that she’s new to Dallas, having only been sworn in as the chief of police on September 5, 2017. A couple of weeks later, she talked to The Undefeated about being the city’s first female top cop, although she preferred to focus on her job performance over her race or gender. “I think the one thing that every police chief wants to be, and that’s successful,” she said. “You want to make sure that you’re addressing the concerns of the community and that you’re taking care of your officers. So that’s the level of pressure that I have — not being a woman.”

It was hard to get away from, though — especially her race. Because one of the reasons Hall was brought in to run the Dallas PD was to end its long history of racist policing. And in fairness, it does seem as though Hall wants to police differently. She was, for instance, a big advocate for community policing. And the Detroit crime rate fell to a 40-year historic low during her time as deputy chief.

Still, the Jean case has tested her ability to push change. While she decided to release Guyger’s name to the public just two days after Jean’s death, it was mainly a strategic move designed to calm the public’s anger. Similarly strategic: The decision to turn over the investigation to the Texas Rangers, who, for their own reasons, declined to pursue any arrest warrant at that time. They claimed they needed to follow up on details provided during the Dallas PD’s interview with Guyger. Hall attempted to justify their rationale, “This will allow them to be thorough in their decision as to how to move forward.”

Lee Merritt, the lawyer for the Jean family, issued a response on behalf of the murdered man’s relatives, “If there is probable cause that a crime has been committed in this jurisdiction, it is incumbent upon law enforcement, and in particular the district attorney’s office, to issue a warrant for the arrest of the officer involved.”

Three days had passed, and Amber Guyger was still free, able to do as she pleased. This isn’t typically how the police treat someone who calls 911 on themselves after they’ve just shot and killed their neighbor. Typically, that person gets arrested. But it was becoming painfully obvious: Guyger was being treated like a cop, not like a citizen.

* * * * *

Whenever there’s a black victim of police violence, the usual expectation is that they’ll be discredited via a chorus of news stories. The news media paints the recently deceased as “no angel,” and reveals all the ways the black victim had been in trouble with the law in the past — complete with old mugshots, if available.

In this instance, however, Jean, an accountant of all things, had never been in trouble with the law. Not a day in his life. If anything, he was a beloved church member and youth leader — e.g., in college, Jean was a member of the “Good News Singers, a resident assistant and an intern for the Rock House campus ministry.” During his time at Harding University, a small Christian college, he also arranged trips to his home island of St. Lucia for college kids to volunteer and perform charity works. After graduating in 2016 — and an internship with PriceWaterhouseCoopers — Jean was hired as a risk-assurance associate in the PwC Dallas office. Essentially, he was an insurance analyst. A safe job if ever there were one, even for a black man in America.

And yet, when his Uncle Ignatius received word that his nephew had been murdered, the news came in the middle of the night. Like a criminal. He remembers the 2 a.m. phone call hitting like “a nuke had been unleashed on our family by someone trusted to protect and serve.” Jean’s mother (who still lives in St. Lucia) couldn’t bring herself to call his father (who lives in NYC), asking Jean’s 17-year-old brother Brandt to dial him instead. Once he had his father on the line, Brandt handed the phone to his mother. Through the walls, he could hear her sobs. “I never heard my mother cry like that,” he recalls.

* * * * *

At 7:20 p.m. on Sunday, September 9th, Amber Guyger was finally arrested and processed for intake at Kaufman County Jail. She was officially charged with manslaughter, not murder. Bail was set at $300,000. With a speed rarely seen in county jails anywhere in America, Guyger was booked and processed in about an hour, because she was no longer listed in the county’s jail system by 8:30 p.m. that same night.

Monday brought with it more coverage from the local Dallas news on this mysterious case of the white cop who shot her black neighbor. They repeated soundbites from the weekend’s many press conferences and attempted to stitch together a story from what little facts were known. Many of the news stories featured video segments of Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, who, in a press conference on Saturday, had spoken highly of Jean. “Botham Jean was exactly the sort of citizen we want to have in the city of Dallas,” he said. “And for that reason, this is a terrible thing that has happened. Not only has he lost his life, but we’ve lost a potential leader for this city for decades to come.”

At the same time, though, he offered his support for local law enforcement and its handling of this very strange case, tweeting:

In a lot of ways, this was the pivot — the moment when the case was spun on its heels and marched in the other direction. Either way, something definitely changed by that Friday, which is when news broke that a judge approved search warrants to be executed in both Guyger’s and Jean’s apartments. Investigators used them to seize items like the door locks, which could prove (or disprove) Guyger’s claim that Jean’s door had been ajar when she arrived. There were also search warrants for ballistics evidence and “gunshot residue,” along with video evidence from the apartment complex’s surveillance cameras. Fairly mundane stuff.

Except for one item, which despite the search warrants and inventory of seized items being sealed, a local Dallas news team conveniently uncovered: Police reported that they’d discovered a “small amount of marijuana” in Jean’s apartment — 10.4 grams to be exact.

This detail hit the news on the same day Jean’s funeral was held in Dallas. His family had flown in from St. Lucia and New York. They arrived in Dallas just in time to see the local news assassinate Jean’s character. They got to watch as strangers speculated on what this discovery suggested about Jean. Like:

  • Why did this so-called good Christian man have drugs?
  • What else was he hiding?
  • Could drugs be why Officer Guyger acted to protect herself?
  • Was this black man just really high and acting really scary — in what she thought was her apartment?

Botham’s mother, Allison Jean, held a press conference of her own. She wanted to bring the world’s attention back to where it belonged — her dead, innocent son. “The information received yesterday is to me worse than the call that I got on the morning of Friday, September 7th,” Allison Jean explained. “To have my son smeared in such a way, I think shows there are persons who are really nasty, who are really dirty, and are going to cover up for the devil, Amber Guyger.”

In her pleasing Caribbean accent, Allison Jean asked if Guyger’s toxicology report had been released — “because she was the murderer” — and went on to question Guyger’s preferential treatment by the arms of Texas law. “My family and I have only been asking for a fair hearing for my son. We have also been asking the community to engage in peaceful protests. But if information like that will come out to tarnish my son’s reputation in death, I will not sit back, and see that justice does not prevail. It is time that we recognize that lives matter. My son’s life matters,” she said, her voice strained by the emotions clearly choking her insides. “I’m calling on the Dallas officials, whether it be the D.A.’s office — I don’t know the Dallas system, but whoever it is, please, come clean, give me justice for my son. Because he does not deserve what he got.”

The peaceful protests she requested began to coalesce later that night, with dozens of people gathering outside of a Dallas police station. Next, they marched toward downtown Dallas. At one point, they crossed the I-30 freeway and shut down the interstate. No traffic could travel west. Unsure if they were witnessing the sparks of the next Ferguson, news media from around the world covered the protest. Naturally, these reporters all asked the same question: Are drugs why Botham Jean died?

That, in turn, shouted down the correct question: Why did Amber Guyger shoot Botham Jean?

* * * * *

Ever since, the case has become less easily understood, with few developments. That seems purposeful — a deliberate pause to provide enough time for the story to slip from the headlines. We do know that Amber Guyger has been fired. She was terminated from the Dallas PD for “adverse conduct.” Notice that she wasn’t fired for shooting a citizen when off-duty. She was fired for getting arrested. That’s a bitter pill to swallow.

We also know that the district attorney from Dallas County who will prosecute Guyger’s case, Faith Johnson, is a black woman and that she was quick to distance herself from the Texas Rangers and their preliminary handling of the case. But to complicate things, Johnson is a Republican whose running for re-election as D.A. in November. That may be why she seems to want it both ways. She says she “loves police,” but she’s also said that a murder charge “very well may be an option.”

As far as its investigation into Amber Guyger’s manslaughter case, the Texas Rangers have still released very little. As such, the Dallas Morning News requested that the Dallas PD release the transcript of Guyger’s 911 call just after the shooting. But, for some reason, the city won’t release the tapes or transcript.

Per the Dallas News, “An attorney for the city said in a letter dated Monday that the Police Department and Dallas County district attorney’s office are asking Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton to allow them to withhold the 911 recording. […] Assistant City Attorney Pavala Armstrong wrote that releasing the information would interfere with the investigation into the Sept. 6 shooting.” (Somehow, though, sealed court documents that offered evidence of marijuana police found in Jean’s apartment were able to find their way to the media; similarly, there are still those original four to five days of police inaction before search warrants were finally executed on Guyger’s home, which gave the self-confessed shooter a lot of time to remove and/or destroy any evidence from her apartment that might provide motive.)

So what comes next?

Jean’s family plans to file a lawsuit against Guyger, the Dallas PD and the City of Dallas. And eventually, Guyger will go to trial. But if she’s exonerated or her case is dismissed, she could likely get a new job in a new police department.

That’s what happened with Timothy Loehmann, the cop who shot Tamir Rice. In that case of wrongful death, the police and news media also conspired to cast doubt upon the victim, questioning his actions far more than his killer’s: What did he expect would happen, having a toy gun, like that?

But what they really mean is: There must be a perfectly reasonable excuse for why that black person made the cop shoot him to death.

In this way, the story of Botham Jean isn’t as mysterious or puzzling as it first seemed. Instead, it’s become a very common tale. Because although Amber Guyger was a citizen — just like any other — when she walked into Jean’s apartment and killed him, the fact that she wore a blue uniform seems to be getting in the way of justice.