The trial of Botham Jean is officially underway.
Despite being gunned down in his own apartment – by an off-duty police officer now charged with manslaughter – the 26-year-old Dallas resident is now shamefully being tried in the court of public opinion, experts and activists contend.
Authorities on Thursday revealed that a search warrant executed in Jean’s apartment uncovered, among other things, two fired cartridge casings, a black backpack with police equipment and paperwork – as well as 10.4 grams of marijuana.
The marijuana was the focus of a widely panned tweet by Fox 4 News in Dallas – “DEVELOPING: Search warrant: Marijuana found in Botham Jean’s apartment after deadly shooting” – which by Friday evening had 40,000 comments, but only 1,400 retweets and 3,100 likes.
“As someone pointed out-Did anyone check HER apartment? Drug test HER? She killed HIM!” actress Patricia Arquette wrote.
Dr. Heather Thompson, professor of history, Afro-American and African studies at the University of Michigan, blasted the release of drug evidence in particular as “disgraceful” and questioned its coverage by media.
“This is what always happens, which is to blame the victim of police violence,” she said. “There are many facts that one can report – we could have reported his religion, we could have reported how many times he was married. We could have reported on how many degrees he had.”
Instead the focus shifted to the marijuana found on the kitchen table, which Vincent Southerland, the executive director for New York University’s Center on Race, Inequality and Law Enforcement, dismissed as “completely irrelevant.”
“The bottom line is this man was executed in his own home and there is no set of facts or piece of evidence that will undermine or contradict that fundamental fact,” he said. “He was sitting at home, not doing anything, living his life – to expect not to survive that kind of situation is insane.”
Jean was fatally shot on Sept. 6 by Dallas County Police Officer Amber Guyger, who said she mistakenly entered the wrong apartment unit, thinking it was her own, and fired two shots at Jean, who she believed to be a burglar.
Southerland said the shooting’s aftermath speaks to the “broader problem of how we view people of color,” specifically “our willingness to conflate black and brown skin with criminality.”
He likened the Dallas shooting to other incidents that involved deadly force from a police officer. When Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson, Mo., in 2014, there was a lot focus on whether or not he was involved in a fight beforehand and if there had been marijuana in his system, Southerland pointed out.
“The immediate presumption is that people of color are criminals,” Thompson said. “There’s no question that when the victim is a person of color, there is an immediate dive into whether they had a criminal record or not. The presumption is that they’re guilty of something, and that is used to mitigate police shootings.”
When the victim is white however, there is not the same “search for justification” in similar confrontations, Southerland said. “There’s a collective effort to explain how this happened from the officer’s perspective, and far too often it happens that the perspective of the person being harmed by law enforcement is completely overlooked.”
Southerland wonders if the issue of tying criminality to race played a factor in Guyger’s reaction to Jean when he spotted him inside the apartment.
“Why is it that the officer felt like she had to shoot him in the chest?” Southerland said. “Why couldn’t she have backed out? Why couldn’t she fire a warning shot?”
The circumstances surrounding the shooting remain murky. The arrest affidavit, written by Officer David L. Armstrong of the Texas Rangers, and the arrest warrant written on Sept. 7 offer contradicting accounts of the deadly confrontation.
According to the affidavit, based primarily on Guyger’s account, the officer “inserted a unique door key, with an electronic chip, into the door key hole. The door, which was slightly ajar prior to Guyger’s arrival, fully opened under the force of the key insertion.” She then entered the apartment and twice opened fire when she spotted Jean inside.
The warrant, written before Guyger was interviewed, alternatively said Jean “confronted the officer at the door,” according to the Star-Telegram. “A neighbor stated he heard an exchange of words, immediately followed by at least two gunshots.”
Evidence collected from Jean’s apartment does support Guyger’s account that she stood across the room when she fatally shot the Harding University graduate. It’s still unclear though, whether or not the door was unlocked, according to the Dallas Morning News.
For as many unanswered questions that still remain, Southerland said there is no doubt Jean’s life was cut far too short.
“The reality is, he could have been the worst person on the face of the earth,” he said, “(but) there is nothing that could justify his death.”