DALLAS – Prosecutors and defense attorneys in the murder trial of a white Dallas police officer who fatally shot her unarmed black neighbor inside his own apartment worked Friday to get potential jurors to open up about biases and feelings they might have about police, in a case that has sparked fierce debate over race, politics and policing.
A week after jury selection began, would-be jurors in Amber Guyger’s trial for the killing of Botham Jean returned to a Dallas courthouse where they were questioned by attorneys and the judge about their ability to serve in the high-profile case. By Friday evening, State District Judge Tammy Kemp had sent all of the potential jurors home and told them they would be called by the next day if chosen to serve.
The demographics of the jury will be closely watched in the case that has drawn widespread attention and sparked outrage. While lawyers did not ask the jury pool explicitly about race, critics – including Jean’s family – have questioned why Guyger was not taken into custody immediately after the shooting and whether race played a factor in her decision to use deadly force.
Guyger, who has since been fired, shot and killed Jean in the apartment building where they both lived last September. Guyger, 31, was off duty but still in uniform after finishing what she told investigators was a 15-hour shift. She said that she confused Jean’s apartment with her own, which was directly below his, and mistook the 26-year-old accountant from the Caribbean island nation St. Lucia for a burglar.
John Helms, a Dallas-based defense attorney and former federal prosecutor who isn’t involved in the case, said potential jurors’ views on race and their interactions with law enforcement will be relevant to who is picked.
“Without knowing anything more about a person, race – I think – can be an indicator of how a person may feel about this case going in,” Helms said. “It would be naive to think that race would not be a factor in the minds of the lawyers who are doing the jury selection.”
Lawyers’ questions Friday and the range of responses from the potential jurors showcased the varied issues at play. Kemp issued a gag order in the case in January, barring attorneys involved from speaking about it publicly.
But some questions posed Friday hinted at likely strategies the prosecution and defense may return to during trial.
Assistant District Attorney Jason Fine focused on perspectives on policing, while much of Guyger defense attorney Toby Shook’s questioning centered on legal aspects of self-defense.
When asked whether Guyger’s work would “change the burden of proof” she needed, a white woman said, “I do believe that a police officer should be held to a higher standard.”
Several other people, mostly men, said they’d be unable to convict Guyger because she’d been a Dallas officer when she shot Jean.
Only about a dozen of the 220 potential jurors raised their hands when Fine asked who had heard “nothing” about the case.
While questioning the pool about how they handle working long hours or a lack of sleep, a police detective from the Dallas suburb of Plano responded that he used to talk to people on the phone to stay awake as he drove home from long shifts.
Fine asked the detective whether police camaraderie would affect the man’s ability to impartially decide this case. The man answered: “No, sir. I believe I can judge fairly.”
Kemp urged the pool to “set aside any preconceived notions” of what happened when Guyger shot Jean because they might be “far afield.” The judge was firm that 12 jurors and four alternates would be selected Friday, a week from when the process began on Sept. 6. She sent the potential jurors home around 7:30 p.m. Friday and said 16 of them would be called by Saturday morning to serve.
She said there is a “strong likelihood” that the jury will be sequestered for the duration of the trial, which is set to start Sept. 23.
Last week, on the anniversary of Jean’s death, hundreds of potential jurors were given questionnaires asking about their views and knowledge of the case.
Attorneys for Guyger requested in July that her trial be moved to another county, claiming “prejudicial” media coverage and statements from public officials “poisoned the jury pool” in Dallas. Kemp has said she will see whether a jury can be seated before ruling on the request.
Jean graduated in 2016 from Harding University in Arkansas, where he often led campus religious services as a student. He had worked for accounting firm PwC since graduating.
After shooting Jean, Guyger can be heard in a recording of a 911 call apologizing to him. She tells a 911 dispatcher nearly 20 times while waiting for emergency responders to arrive that she thought she was in her own apartment. Guyger told investigators her apartment was on the third floor but that she had parked on the fourth floor where Jean lived instead, according to an affidavit, possibly suggesting that she was confused or disoriented.
She initially was arrested on a manslaughter charge, but a grand jury decided on the more serious charge of murder.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.