Amber Guyger’s murder conviction in Texas, for killing her unarmed Black neighbor Botham Jean, was simultaneously just and surprising. Guyger shot and killed Jean in his own apartment while he was eating ice cream nonetheless. In an American justice system that has seen one unarmed Black man after another killed senselessly at the hands of law enforcement, Guyger’s conviction came as a shock, because so many officers escape all accountability.
Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, Jonathan Ferrell, Freddie Gray, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Stephon Clark, and their families, were all devastatingly deprived of justice. It pissed us off and broke our hearts at the same damn time. As I’ve said on The Breakfast Club: we have videos and camera-phones, but we still don’t have any convictions. This is because the statutes around police killings allow for almost anything to be deemed reasonable fear in justifying an officer’s deadly force. Until the laws change — not much else will.
But now, a 31-year old white woman police officer was found guilty of murdering a 27-year-old unarmed black man. How? Why was this outcome so dramatically different from all the other cases of similar demographics? The Dallas Country jury chose to convict Guyger of murder, instead of the less serious option of manslaughter. The most significant and consequential difference between Guyer’s conviction and the acquittals/ dismissals of charges against previous officers that killed unarmed black men was that the unarmed black man, in this case, Botham Jean, was widely represented by his peers in almost every aspect of the judicial process.
Black people, and presumably a Black lens, touched this case from beginning to end. The mayor of Dallas, the police chief, and Dallas County District Attorney are all Black. The presiding judge, Tammy Kemp, is also a Black woman. Of the 12 jurors and four alternates, seven are Black, four appear to be white, and five are of other races and ethnicities.
While it cannot, and should not be assumed, that simply because Black folks were central figures in this case, justice automatically prevailed. I’ve tried enough cases as a criminal defense attorney to know that an occasional Black judge, juror, or prosecutor being a part of a case does not guarantee that our interests are represented.
However, the compounding effect of so much diversity and Black involvement in every aspect of these courtroom proceedings shows the phenomenal power of how the system can work in our favor when our peers show up in significant numbers as active participants in our judicial process.
Typically when we think of the phrase “jury of your peers” it’s referencing a jury comprised of the defendant’s peers, so that the defendant is afforded a fair trial. In fact “a jury of your peers” is a constitutional guarantee. Problem is that America’s founders were designing protections for a completely homogeneous society comprised only of white citizens. Narrowly applying that guarantee only to the defendant in our modern era of racially diverse, biased and flat-out prejudiced citizens hits different. Nowadays, the concept of peer representation is as important for the victim in the case as it is for the defendant.
The American justice system is imperfect AF. But in order for it to have even a chance at being effective, each party involved must be humanized in the effort to have justice served. Representation is imperative to humanization.
“This case looks very different than many of the other cases where juries have looked at black victims and not valued their lives,” said Rashad Robinson, President of Color of Change, a racial justice organization. I suspect Robinson is connecting the dots between Black (and other non-white) jurors being able to better identify with, empathize, and share humanity with Botham Jean. The diverse jury pool was likely aided by the Black prosecutor, LaQuita Long. Long was tasked with telling Jean’s story, framing the facts in a way that ensured each juror could appreciate Jean’s humanity, and his value.
This curating of connection between the jury and the victim (especially when the victim is tragically deseeded) is critically important for a jury to hold anyone, let alone a law enforcement officer, accountable for the victim’s death. This analysis goes straight to the heart of the Black Lives Matter movement. This is what I’m talking about when I highlight the importance of the compound effect. A progressive, no non-sense judge produced a diverse jury, and the district attorney was elected based on a police reform platform. The collaboration of these elements resulting in justice for Jean and a conviction of Guyger is no accident. This is the design of justice in modern America.
While we all should take a moment to have restored faith in the possibilities of the American justice system based on this case, I don’t want us to do assume too much around this verdict. Specifically, it would be a mistake to use this conviction as evidence that there has been any shift in the way we hold police officers accountable for murder. That is not the lesson. The lesson is that this Dallas community worked to create the ideal environment for justice to be possible. Then it delivered on it.
For those interested in seeing more convictions for officers that murder unarmed Black men and women, or other examples of our justice system working for us instead of against us, here are some tangible action steps:
- Stop dodging jury duty! We are our best chance at justice. This means we need to show up and serve on every jury we are called for. By the way, most places select potential jurors from recent voting records — so vote!
- Speaking of voting: vote for credible Black judges and Black prosecutors. I cannot overstate the importance of having Black judges in a courtroom. Essentially, a Black judge is the gatekeeper and orchestrator of justice. These individuals facilitate jury selection, the admissibility of evidence, and jury instructions. They are imperative to the process. So, vote them onto the bench in droves.
- Fortunately, there are many Black women that are making their presence felt in courtrooms across the country (especially in the South) a perfect example are the 19 Black women judges elected in Texas, as well as the NCCU roommates who are now judges.
But we ALWAYS need more. So run for office and vote!
“God is Good” was the phrase exclaimed by Botham Jean’s mother, Allison Jean, after Judge Kemp read Guyger’s guilty verdict. God is good indeed. While we all should celebrate this exceptional example of justice, we should condemn its exceptionalism. Simultaneously we should make sure we’re doing all we can to ensure the replication of the circumstances that just played out in Dallas County and curate the same environment in courtrooms across the country. Like Botham Jean, we should all benefit from the power of having jurors, judges, mayors, and district attorneys representative of our peers.
Eboni K. Williams is a TV host, attorney, and best-selling-author who currently co-hosts on REVOLT TV’s ‘State of the Culture’ weekly talk show.Share :