A caucasian police officer without a warrant barged into a black man’s apartment and screamed for him to put up his hands. The officer, unsatisfied with the cooperation of the occupant, immediately shot him. Botham Jean, the 26-year old occupant, died at the scene.
These are the simple facts of a trial that ended in Dallas, Texas, last week. The incident happened just over a year ago on Sept. 6, 2018. The officer’s name was Amber Guyger. The trial that began on Sept. 23 was supposed to last two weeks. On Oct. 1, she was convicted of murder and sentenced to ten years in the Texas state penitentiary.
In Dallas tensions run high between the Black Lives Matter movement and the law-enforcement community. In July 2016, at a protest against two officer-involved shootings, a sniper ambushed Dallas police. Twelve officers were shot and five died. That event still poisons the racial atmosphere in Dallas.
Guyger’s actions on that terrible Thursday ripped the scab from a recent wound. It has unleashed numerous accusations of a police cover-up. Even though she called 911 immediately and confessed to the crime, many questions have been raised.
According to Guyger, the only surviving eyewitness, she was exhausted and bleary-eyed from long hours. When she got into the elevator, she pushed the wrong button and was let out on the floor below her own apartment. Shuffling through an identical floor-plan she was alarmed to find someone in “her” apartment. Assuming him to be a burglar, she frantically unholstered her service weapon and shot the unarmed and innocent man.
The victim’s family and their supporters have openly questioned her version of events. They point out that her story is inconsistent on the question of whether the door was locked. They wonder why it took three days before she was taken into custody and how she was out on a $300,000 bond within hours. They question why the Dallas Police Department kept Guyger on administrative leave for 18 days before they fired her.
Jean’s family also cried foul when a toxicology report was released to the public noting a trace of marijuana in Jean’s apartment. The 911 recording was another bone of contention. In it the operator seemed not to ask about the medical status of the victim. Accusations were levelled that the operator was more concerned with the emotional state of the officer than with administering first aid to Jean.
These, and numerous other criticisms have continued to keep tensions simmering as the slow wheels of justice turned toward last week’s trial. Even the jury’s guilty verdict and a ten-year prison sentence were not enough to satisfy demands for justice. An angry crowd protested outside the courthouse demanding the longest sentence possible.
In addition to the raw emotions of Jean’s family, numerous activists and special interest groups are also using this tragedy to spotlight various causes. We have already mentioned Black Lives Matter. Libertarian activists also want police brutality punished. Gun-rights groups have used the killing as reason for law-abiding citizens, to defend themselves against aggressive cops. Criminal justice groups want to highlight sentencing disparities between law-enforcement officers and the common citizen.
In the middle of this toxic stew, it seems hopeless that we can ever find a just and satisfying outcome to the senseless murder of Botham Jean. On a larger scale, every murder, every assault, every injustice exposes the same conundrum. There will never, ever be a way to hand out justice in a way that satisfies all interested parties.
Nevertheless, what raw justice cannot accomplish God’s mercy can. It begins with repentance. Amber Guyger was horrified by her actions from the moment she pulled the trigger. On the 911 call, immediately after the shooting, she is heard talking to Jean saying, “I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to. I didn’t mean to. I’m so sorry… I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.”
During the months leading to the trial, she made no public statements. Then, on September 27 she finally had the opportunity to take the witness stand and speak. Through tears she fought to compose herself just enough to be heard. In words that squeaked out barely above a whisper, she told the court, “I ask God for forgiveness and I hate myself every single day.” Her body language testified to the sincerity of her words.
Still, all the sincere repentance in the world cannot bring Jean back to life or undo the terrible wrong. Nor can it substitute for a just punishment. Her attorney acknowledged this in his final statement before sentencing. There was no question that jail time was necessary. But an eternity in prison still would not match the crime.
It was the victim’s younger brother, Brandt, who provided the breakthrough. When he took the stand to give his victim impact statement he said, “I wasn’t ever going to say this in front of my family, or anyone. But… I don’t even want you to go to jail. I want the best for you. Because I know that’s exactly what Botham would want you to do. And the best would be to give your life to Christ. I love you as a person. I don’t wish anything bad on you.” Then, as if the courtroom was not stunned enough, he turned to the judge and said, “I don’t know if this is possible but, can I give her a hug?”
Physical contact between witnesses and the accused is a major breach of security. It just doesn’t happen. The bailiffs were baffled. All eyes turned to the judge and to her reaction to this unprecedented request. She recognized that something otherworldly was taking place and granted the request.
Brandt stepped out of the witness stand and walked toward Amber. Amber did not walk. She ran toward her victim’s brother. They clung to each other through tears and wailing of sorrow mingled with joy. It is impossible to watch without being caught up in the emotion of the moment. If you want a dose of hope in this hopeless world, I encourage you to find that video and view it for yourself.
The full and free forgiveness that Brandt offered to Amber affected everyone in the courtroom — most of all the judge herself. She was not finished with her surprises. Unceremoniously, she left the bench and went to hug and comfort Botham’s family. Then, she approached the convicted murderer herself and whispered something inaudible in her ear.
Turning, Judge Tammy Kemp left the courtroom and entered her chambers only to emerge moments later carrying a well-worn Bible. This she presented to Amber explaining that she uses it every day but now wants Amber to have it. She thumbed through the pages looking for a specific spot. Then she gave the open Bible to Amber with instructions issued in the voice of judicial compassion and wisdom: “This is your job for the next month. Right here, John 3:16.”
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” This is the answer for a world gridlocked in guilt, hopelessly and irreversibly sunk in inexcusable crimes. No worldly justice can help. True justice is served from the cross of Christ.
Jonathan Lange is an LCMS pastor in Evanston and Kemmerer and serves the Wyoming Pastors Network. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow his blog at OnlyHuman-JL.blogspot.com.