The newly elected Dallas County district attorney was probably feeling more than a little pressure to deliver justice in the racially charged case of former police officer Amber Guyger killing Botham Jean in his own home nearly two months ago.
John Creuzot, who is African-American, recently said “the most appropriate charge” for the white woman who fired the fatal shot at an unarmed Black man in his own apartment was murder—not manslaughter. But his comments came, admittedly, without being intimately familiar with the investigation into one of the most unusual police shootings in recent history that he will begin overseeing after he’s sworn in next year.
Until then, he’s only privy to the same information as the rest of the public. And that’s precisely why one of Creuzot’s predecessors, former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, said he may want to tone down any rhetoric that might prove hard to back up. Either way, convicting a cop of anything has always been an uphill battle.
“You can’t determine what direction you would go in by news accounts because they don’t have all the information and evidence,” Watkins, Texas’ first elected Black district attorney, told NewsOne in a recent interview. “So it may be somewhat premature and maybe irresponsible to basically make that kind of statement without knowing all the facts.”
In case there was any confusion about his comments, Watkins, a Democrat who served from 2006 to 2014, made himself clear: “It’s a precarious situation to make a statement that it should be a murder case without knowing the facts.”
Guyger claimed that on the night of Oct. 6, following a long shift, she mistook Jean, 26, for an intruder after walking into his apartment thinking that it was her own home. She actually lived one floor below him. Police consequently appeared to grant Guyger favorable treatment that invited suspicions of a cover-up, prompting demands for transparency and justice from Dallas’ Black community to officials from Jean’s native Caribbean island of St. Lucia. Her arrest was inexplicably delayed and she was fired nearly three weeks later, but not before she was allowed time to move out of her apartment and allegedly try to scrub her social media accounts clean of any potential damning evidence of implicit bias toward Black people.
Watkins lost his re-election bid to Republican Susan Hawk in 2015. After she resigned about a year later for mental health reasons, the governor appointed the current district attorney, Faith Johnson, a Republican who became the first Black woman lead prosecutor for Dallas County until her loss on Election Day earlier this month. Johnson has been widely criticized for how she’s handled the case, yet she still said she wants to continue being involved after Creuzot takes over. That could actually turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Creuzot, Watkins suggested.
“I would want to basically be cautious in the direction I would go in because once the new DA gets in and finds out all the evidence, he may come to the same conclusion as the old DA,” said Watkins, who is also a criminal justice system reformer and critic of police corruption.
The reality of the situation was that securing a conviction against Guyger for manslaughter is far from a slam-dunk. Getting a jury to convict a cop of murder, especially in the Lone Star State, has been even tougher.
There are roughly 1,000 police shootings every year in the United States, but officers seldom face justice. According to CNN, only 80 cops were arrested on murder or manslaughter charges for on-duty shootings between 2005 and April 2017. However, only 35 percent of those arrests led to convictions in that 12-year period. Guyger was off-duty at the time she killed Jean.
A Texas jury surprised many in August when it found white former police officer Roy Oliver guilty of murder in the 2017 shooting of an unarmed Black teenager named Jordan Edwards. It was the first time in 40 years that a Texas police officer had been convicted of murder for an on-duty shooting. The jury heard from several witnesses, plus there was video evidence.
That scenario will probably not repeat itself with Guyger’s case, which apparently has no witnesses other than the former cop herself.
To win a murder conviction, the prosecution must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Guyger went into Jean’s apartment intending to kill him. On the other hand, Creuzot would only have to prove Guyger was reckless when she shot Jean in order to win a manslaughter conviction. The difference is literally a matter of Guyger’s life, which could be spent behind bars forever with a guilty verdict for murder.
“I think it’s noble of the new DA to want to pursue the highest charge. DAs in the past have been irresponsible to acquiesce to the police unions,” Watkins said. “I think he will vigorously prosecute in this case.”