By Brad Brooks
AUSTIN, Texas (Reuters) – Texas prosecutors on Wednesday said a jury should sentence former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger to at least 28 years in prison for mistakenly entering a black neighbor’s apartment and shooting him to death as he ate ice cream.
The jury could sentence Guyger, 31, to life in prison or as little as five years behind bars for murdering 26-year-old Botham Jean on Sept. 6, 2018.
Jean’s father cried as he told the jury of his intense pain following the murder of his son, who he said brought joy to those around him.
“How could we lose Botham – such a sweet boy? He tried his best to live a good honest life. He loved God. He loved everyone,” Bertrum Jean said as he wept. “How can this be possible? I’ll never see him again. I want to see him!”
Jean’s slaying by a white police officer had provoked street protests, particularly after prosecutors initially opted to charge Guyger with manslaughter rather than murder.
Lawyers for the victim’s family said they believed the verdict was the first time a white female police officer had been found guilty of first-degree murder in the killing of an unarmed black man.
“This is a historic case and history provides us with a teachable moment,” said civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, who also represented the family of Trayvon Martin, the Florida teenager shot and killed in 2012 by a civilian neighborhood watchman who was later cleared in court.
This case was unlike other recent high-profile killings, such as those of Michael Brown in Missouri and Philando Castile in Minnesota, since Guyger was not on duty or responding to a reported crime when she fired.
State prosecutors hammered at racist and violent text messages and social media posts that Guyger made in the months leading up to Jean’s killing.
One text Guyger wrote in January 2018 stated how she would like to use pepper spray on the crowd at a Martin Luther King Jr. parade in Dallas. In another she wrote that her black police colleagues “just have a different way of working and it shows.”
Prosecutor LaQuita Long told the jury that this past weekend marked the second birthday Jean’s family had mourned him since his death.
“I’m going to encourage you that the number you return with should be no lower than 28 years,” Long said. “That is what Botham would have celebrated on Sunday.”
Lawyers for Guyger called her mother, sister, a few fellow police officers and several acquaintances to the stand. They all said the former police officer had a caring personality.
LaWanda Clark, a longtime drug addict, told jurors how Guyger had ticketed her during a bust at a drug den a few years ago, but told the woman that she could “continue on the road that you’re on – or this can be your ticket out.”
Clark said she went through a rehab program, is now sober and employed, and credits Guyger with turning her life around.
“She let me know that I mattered,” Clark said. “That she didn’t just see me as an addict.”
Defense lawyer Toby Shook asked the jury to consider the unusual circumstances of this case, noting that Guyger “was not on duty. She just wanted to go home.”
(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Scott Malone, Bernadette Baum and David Gregorio)