DALLAS -- A white former Dallas police officer went on trial Monday in the shooting death of a black neighbor as attorneys debated whether the officer was distracted by a phone call when she mistook the neighbor's apartment for her own and the victim for an intruder.
Prosecutors contended that Amber Guyger, 31, was distracted Sept. 6, 2018, by a conversation with a colleague, with whom she had a sexual relationship, when she entered the apartment complex where she lived. Guyger's attorneys argued that she fired in self-defense based on the mistaken belief that she was in her home and that Botham Jean, a graduate of Harding University in Searcy, was a burglar.
Jean, a 26-year-old accountant from the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia, "was doing no harm to anyone, which was his way," Dallas County Assistant District Attorney Jason Hermus said in an opening statement.
Jean was in his living room and eating a bowl of vanilla ice cream when Guyger entered the apartment, which was one floor directly above her apartment, Hermus said.
Hermus said Guyger had worked overtime that day, mostly involving office work that was not strenuous. He said jurors will see sexually explicit messages that Guyger exchanged that evening with a co-worker that discussed meeting up after her shift ended. He said some messages had been deleted from Guyger's phone after the shooting.
During pretrial proceedings, prosecutors and defense attorneys clashed over whether those messages should be entered into evidence.
Hermus said Guyger missed several clues that should have led her to realize she was on the wrong floor.
One of Guyger's former neighbors, for example, had a large decorative planter outside her third-floor apartment, Hermus said, but no such thing was on the fourth floor. And lighted signs display the apartment numbers outside each unit.
"She walks past 16 different apartments and fails to register the number 4 on any one of them," Hermus said.
Hermus also held up a bright red doormat that Jean had outside his door. Guyger, on the other hand, had no mat -- just gray concrete outside her door, Hermus said.
Guyger entered Jean's apartment through an unlocked door, Hermus said, and once inside she missed more clues.
He said Guyger failed to notice the smell of marijuana in Jean's apartment -- presumably, hers did not smell of marijuana, Hermus said -- and that Jean's apartment was cluttered, unlike her apartment, which was very neat. Jean's apartment also was missing a large table near the entryway that hers had, Hermus said.
Hermus said Guyger's series of unreasonable errors led to Jean's death.
"For her errors, for her omissions, Bo paid the ultimate price," Hermus said.
In his opening statement, defense attorney Robert Rogers rejected the prosecution's argument that there were unique signs that would have signaled to Guyger that she was on the wrong floor. In fact, he said, the identical look of the apartment complex from floor to floor often led to confusion among tenants, with dozens regularly parking on the wrong floor of the parking garage or attempting to enter the wrong apartment.
Rogers said the floors of the parking garage were not clearly marked, so it was understandable when Guyger, tired from a long shift, pushed open a door and believed an intruder was inside.
Guyger "was on autopilot," he said of her entrance in Jean's apartment. "She had tunnel vision."
Rogers also dismissed as "preposterous" the relevance to Jean's death of Guyger's relationship with her colleague.
Martin Rivera, Guyger's colleague at the time, acknowledged having a 16-minute telephone conversation with Guyger as she headed home from work the night of the shooting. He said the two exchanged sexually explicit messages and images earlier that day but denied making plans to rendezvous with Guyger later that night, as prosecutors suggested.
When prosecutors asked Rivera what the conversation was about, he said he believed it was mostly about police work but that his memory of the call was hazy.
After the shooting, prosecutors said, Guyger deleted from her cellphone the logs of her text exchanges with Rivera. Rivera acknowledged doing the same thing.
Allisa Findley of New York, Jean's older sister, testified that she was the first in the family to be informed of his death when she received a phone call from a hospital social worker.
"I just immediately became cold," Findley said. "It just didn't make sense."
Findley said she broke the news to their mother, and she added that she still sometimes calls her brother's phone hoping that he will answer.
"I haven't accepted it yet," Findley said.
The shooting attracted national scrutiny for the strange circumstances and because it was one in a series of shootings of unarmed black men by white police officers.
The trial's outcome may hinge on whether the jury believes that Guyger's mistake was reasonable, according to legal experts.
Guyger was off duty but still in uniform when she shot Jean. She told investigators that after a 15-hour shift, she parked on the fourth floor of the complex's garage -- rather than the third floor -- and found the apartment's door ajar.
Three days after the shooting, Guyger was arrested on a manslaughter charge. She was subsequently fired from the Dallas Police Department and charged by a grand jury with murder.
The jury will have to decide whether Guyger committed murder, a lesser offense such as manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide, or no crime at all.
Information for this article was contributed by Jake Bleiberg of The Associated Press; and by Jennifer Emily, Lavendrick Smith and Dana Branham of The Dallas Morning News.
State Desk on 09/24/2019
Print Headline: Ex-officer begins trial in killing of neighbor