I was at home when my wife told me that Amber Guyger, a white former Dallas police officer, was found of guilty of murder for killing a black man named Botham Jean last year while Jean was at home in his apartment. She faces up to 99 years in prison.
“Good,” I said flatly.
But that single word doesn’t capture the relief that comes with unexpected justice. When you’re part of a community that has been targeted and victimized by police officers for centuries, when justice has been elusive if not downright invisible, when your expectation for equal treatment has been worn down to a nub, words can’t express what it feels like when justice arrives.
Perhaps that’s why, when the verdict was announced, Jean’s mother stood up in the courtroom, threw her head back, spread her arms in a posture of praise, and opened her mouth to speak in a voice that only God could hear.
I don’t know what she said in that moment, but I understand what it means to depend on God for justice. That’s what black Americans have learned to do when it comes to our interactions with police, because we rarely get justice from a system that seems to be set up against us.
The system seemed set to work against us once again in this case.
Botham Jean, 26, was alone in his apartment last September when Amber Guyger, then a Dallas police officer, returned home from working a double shift. Guyger, who lived directly below Jean in the same apartment building, claimed that she thought she was walking into her own apartment when she found the door to Jean’s apartment ajar. She shot Jean, claiming that she thought he was a burglar.
I never found her story credible. Given that she wasn’t inebriated, it seemed impossible that she wouldn’t know she was walking into someone else’s apartment. Even if the apartment was dark, as she claimed, wouldn’t it smell different? Wouldn’t it feel different? Wouldn’t the furniture be arranged differently? Wouldn’t she know, after a moment or two, that she was in the wrong place?
But even with a story that didn’t make sense, Guyger was a white woman, and American history is stained red by the blood of black men and boys who’ve been falsely accused of harming white women.
We don’t know the names of every black man who was lynched based on the words of white women. However, we know Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy who was lynched in Mississippi after a white woman named Carolyn Bryant Donham lied and said he grabbed her and was sexually crude to her in a store. We know the Central Park 5, five boys of color who were locked away for 13 years after being falsely accused of raping a white woman in New York.
Perhaps most importantly, we know that justice in a case like Jean’s is hard to come by. Not only because his killer was a white woman, but also because she was a police officer.
African Americans have watched one officer after another kill black people with impunity. Even when there was video evidence, as in the case of Eric Garner, who was choked to death by former New York Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo, police officers have killed black people without consequence.
Black people thought we were seeing it happen again, especially when we learned that the judge in Guyger’s case decided to allow the jury to consider the castle doctrine, a type of stand-your-ground law that allows homeowners to use deadly force to defend their own homes.
Thankfully, the jurors didn’t allow Guyger’s contention that she thought she was in her home cloud their judgment, and in this rare instance, they delivered justice.
Botham Jean deserved at least that much.
“Botham was the best that we had to offer," Benjamin Crump, a lawyer representing the family, told reporters after the verdict." Twenty-six-year-old, college-educated black man, certified public accountant, working for one of the big three accounting firms in the world, PricewaterhouseCoopers."
"But it shouldn't take all of that for unarmed black and brown people in America to get justice," Crump said.