Absolution by Misdirection

Graphic by Louise Nillas | Mercury Staff

On Oct. 2, fired police officer and convicted murderer Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison for taking an innocent man’s life. Following her sentencing, the media and the public ran with the story of the forgiveness she received from the victim’s family rather than focusing on how the Dallas Police Department plans to fix its relationship with the black community. The path to white forgiveness is overrun with black bodies, and ignoring our struggles to forgive our oppressors has deadly consequences, as seen in this case and others like it nationwide.

At Guyger’s sentencing, the brother of the victim offered his forgiveness to the convicted killer, even giving her a hug. The judge, Tammy Kemp, went on to do the same and gifted Guyger a Bible. These interactions made headlines nationwide, but took the focus off of a much more important, impactful story: what is being done to solve this problem? The decision to focus on forgiveness was deliberate: it seems like a happy ending to a sad story. After the trial, one juror told NBC News that “(Guyger) showed remorse in that she’s going to have to deal with that for the rest of her life.” In their rush to humanize and forgive Guyger, the facts of the case and the murderer’s lack of remorse were forgotten.

During the trial, Guyger testified that she gave 26-year-old accountant Botham Jean a warning before opening fire, despite the fact that Jean’s neighbors said they heard no such warning. Additionally, Guyger claimed that Jean “charged” at her before a report from the Dallas County medical examiner showed that the bullet traveled in a downward trajectory, indicating that Jean was most likely getting up from a seated position or cowering. In the 911 call Guyger made, she expressed concern for her job as Jean lay dying in his own apartment. While Jean’s bullet wounds drained the life from his body, Guyger nervously texted a fellow officer. Guyger testified that she “briefly” attempted CPR, but a witness’s video shows her frantically pacing outside of Jean’s apartment while making phone calls. Had Guyger truly been remorseful in the moments after the shooting, she would’ve given CPR until paramedics arrived. She wouldn’t have lied to villainize the victim for her own benefit. If Guyger had any remorse for taking an innocent life, she wouldn’t have pleaded not guilty and put Jean’s family through the pain of a trial.

Texts from Guyger’s phone that came out during the trial showed her mocking participants in an MLK parade as well as berating her black colleagues on the police force. It is undeniable that Guyger had racist prejudices, and Jean paid for that with his life. According to Bowling Green State University’s police crime database, Dallas County saw 84 law enforcement officers face criminal charges from 2005 to 2014, the highest in the state along with Harris County. Both during and after the trial, Mike Mata, president of the Dallas Police Association and the man who turned off a squad car camera while he spoke to Guyger shortly after the murder, repeatedly defended the murderer. In the aftermath of the shooting, a Community Police Oversight Board was created, but in its first meeting, board members did not include a period of time for public comment. After attendees grew understandably upset, Dallas PD Chief Renee Hall, a black woman, said she wouldn’t have the mostly-black audience “acting like animals.” Despite the fallout from the trial where both Guyger and Dallas PD were so clearly in the wrong, no good-faith effort has been made to repair the department’s relationship with the Black community in Dallas.

In the aftermath of the shooting, the witness who recorded Guyger pacing outside of Jean’s apartment lost her job after complaints were received calling her a “black extremist” and “anti-police.” Ten days after the trial, key witness Joshua Brown was murdered in an alleged drug deal gone wrong. Both of these people stood up for Jean, all so his murderer could get a measly 10-year sentence. According to data from the Texas Tribune, 55% of inmates convicted of murder in Texas were sentenced to over 40 years in prison. That same data set showed that 10-20 years was the most common sentence for inmates convicted of aggravated robbery. Guyger was sentenced as though she stole an object, not a human life. One witness lost her job and two people lost their lives while Guyger received compassion from the nation.

The media and the public were so focused on presenting a sympathetic image of Guyger that they muffled the cries for change from Jean’s family. “Talk but no action means nothing,” said Allison Jean, Botham’s mother. Local religious leaders are also calling for an overhaul of Dallas PD’s procedures as well as an independent investigation into the death of Brown. Leaders also brought up the fact that Guyger may be released in five years while black inmates routinely receive harsh sentences for lesser offenses. These leaders, as well as Jean’s family, are not equating a hug to complete absolution, so why are we? Our focus should not rest solely on the forgiveness shown at sentencing, but also the rightful anger of the black community in Dallas. This trial showed egregious behavior on the part of Dallas police, and we should hold them accountable, as Jean’s family is trying to do. We should not let one moment of peace distract us from the violence that led to the exchange between Jean’s brother and Guyger. That hug stemmed from the cold-blooded murder of an innocent man and should we allow ourselves to forget that fact, even briefly, then he and other victims of police violence will have died in vain.

So how can we, as members of the UTD community, help make sure this never happens again? We can start by attending protests and amplifying the voices of the oppressed, in this case, the black community. We can also attend Community Police Oversight Board meetings, which are held at City Hall on the first Tuesday of every month at 1:00 p.m. to voice our concerns and demand actions such as an independent investigation of the Dallas Police Department and its current practices, firing Guyger’s partner, who deleted messages from the killer the night of the murder, and ensuring that the department compensates Jean’s family for their loss. Finally, one of the most important things we can do is ensure that we don’t lose focus in the future. We can serve as a megaphone for victims’ families to amplify their concerns rather than humanizing killers. We have to make sure that if there is a next time, we let the victim’s family have full control of the narrative. We have to make sure that next time, we don’t just listen to the victim’s family at our convenience.

Cindy Folefack is a biology junior from Southlake, Texas.

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