As the murder trial approaches for the former Dallas police officer who shot and killed an unarmed and very innocent Black man in his own home last year, one thing has become resoundingly clear: local media has amazingly managed to portray the killer as the victim.
News outlets around Dallas have been steadily asking whether defendant Amber Guyger, a white woman, can get a fair trial for what has been described as the execution of Botham Shem Jean, who was just 26 years old. But the answer to that question has centered on another query: How do you define “fair”?
In recent years, and throughout American history, really, white police officers accused of murdering Black people have routinely been acquitted. Many argue that those verdicts were not fair. So in asking whether Guyger, 30, can get a fair trial — instead of asking whether Jean’s defenseless killing in apparent cold blood will be in vain — local media has seemingly shifted victimhood away from the actual victim.
Defense attorneys filed a motion earlier this month to move the trial out of Dallas (translation: into communities with whiter populations) after successfully rescheduling the trial date to accommodate their own schedules. But that type of pre-trial legal jockeying is par for the course in cases with such high stakes. What should not be expected, however, is local media offering coverage that appears sympathetic to a white woman killer when chances are they wouldn’t afford the same privilege to Black suspects accused of the same heinous crime.
Take, for instance, Exhibit A: On May 8, the Dallas News published an article with the headline, “Can Amber Guyger get a fair trial in Dallas for the shooting of Botham Jean?” That question, which was arguably much more than rhetorical, was printed over a photo of Guyger walking into court, post-makeover, complete with a designer suit for her blonde tresses to flow onto. It was a far cry from her mugshot in an orange jail jumpsuit — imagery which would subliminally hammer home the criminality and not the false sense of innocence for an egregious shooting death that Guyger confessed to during a 911 call in which she showed more concern for her career than the innocent Black man who lay there dying.
Exhibit B: The Dallas News allowed an opinion piece to be published that was written by Guyger’s aunt, who insisted that the killing was not racist. “My niece and my family are devastated by what happened,” Nancy Bishop wrote in a likely attempt to garner sympathy among potential jurors who could decide Guyger’s fate. Conspicuously missing from that media equation was any commentary in article form from Jean’s family.
Exhibit C: After Guyger’s lawyers submitted paperwork to move her murder trial out of Dallas, WFAA, the Dallas area ABC affiliate, published a story with a headline reading, “Amber Guyger can’t get a fair trial for the shooting of Botham Jean in Dallas, defense attorneys say.” WFAA’s declaration was clearly following the narrative that Guyger somehow deserved sympathy for killing an innocent man in his own home.
To be clear, there has not been a single news article from the Dallas area media accompanied by a headline that expresses any sentiments about the legal plight to bring justice for an unarmed Black man who was killed without cause by a white police officer.
Exhibit D: On July 11, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram published an article with the headline, “Ex-cop Amber Guyger can get fair murder trial in Dallas, prosecutors say.” It was a story about the Dallas District Attorney’s Office objecting the moving the trial away from the city, not about whether Jean can get justice in death.
Exhibit E: After that Star-Telegram story, the same news outlet published letters to the editor with the headline, “Amber Guyger can’t get a fair shake with a jury in Dallas.”
Exhibit F: The local CBS affiliate interviewed Dallas attorneys to get their opinion on whether — yep, you guessed it — Guyger can get a fair trial.
Guyger claimed on Sept. 6, she implausibly mistook his apartment for her own and, after ordering Jean not to move, shot him twice before realizing the error of her ways. Her story was met with doubt because of a number of factors, especially her assertion that Jean’s door was ajar. Videos posted on social media by neighbors appeared to show that apartment doors in the building shut automatically, which seemed to indicate that Guyger was lying.
In addition to the inconsistencies in her alibis, which have changed several times, Dallas police, of which Guyger was a member for five years before being fired, appeared to be helping to cover up the shooting for their now-former colleague. The department was accused of allowing Guyger enough time to scrub her social media accounts and get her story straight before turning herself in three days after killing Jean. It also gave Guyger enough time to move out of her apartment, which was never searched by police despite five warrants allowing them to do so.
Murder charges against a police officer are notoriously hard to prosecute. 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.
The unbalanced coverage of Guyger’s ability to get a fair trial for a killing she has admitted to shows at the very least a need for more diversity in those newsrooms and their respective decision-making processes that allow for this type of disproportionate content to be published. At the very most, it shows how little Black lives continue to matter (in Texas, especially) despite circumstances that point to Guyger being very guilty of the murder that she has been charged with. Either way, it’s a travesty.
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