By Bruce Tomaso
DALLAS (Reuters) – A Dallas police officer missed clues including the smell of marijuana when she entered an apartment she believed was her own and shot dead a man eating a bowl of ice cream, a prosecutor said on Monday at the start of the former officer’s murder trial.
Amber Guyger, who is white, has told investigators in Texas that she mistook 26-year-old Botham Jean, who is black, for a burglar after she mistakenly entered his central Dallas apartment one floor above hers.
Assistant District Attorney Jason Hermus told the jury of four men and 12 women that Guyger had a 16-minute phone conversation with her former partner, with whom she had a romantic relationship, on the way home from work that night after a 13-1/2 hour shift.
“Whatever is on her mind after that conversation has consumed her attention entirely,” Hermus said in his opening statement.
The shooting, one of a series of high-profile killings of unarmed black men and teens by white U.S. police, sparked street protests, particularly because prosecutors initially moved to charge Guyger, 31, with manslaughter, a charge for killing without malice that carries a lesser sentence than murder.
In contrast to cases like the killings of Michael Brown in Missouri and Philando Castile in Minnesota, Guyger shot Jean, a PwC accountant who was a native of the Caribbean island nation of Saint Lucia, while she was off duty, rather than while responding to a reported crime.
Hermus told the jury that when Guyger got to her apartment complex, she parked on the fourth floor instead of the third floor, where she had lived for two months.
When she arrived at what she thought was her unit, she failed to notice the bright red semi-circle welcome mat in front of Jean’s apartment, he said.
Jean’s apartment was also unlocked, messy and smelled of marijuana, three more signs that should have tipped Guyger off that it was not her apartment, Hermus said.
Despite the clues, she still burst through the door and opened fire, striking Jean once in the chest as he watched television and ate a bowl of vanilla ice cream.
“He was in the sanctuary of his home doing no harm to anyone,” Hermus said. “There he lie on his back in his home bleeding to death alone with his killer.”
Guyger then called 911.
“I shot a guy thinking it was my apartment,” Hermus said, recounting what Guyger told the dispatcher, noting that she never said that Jean posed a threat to her.
Guyger’s lawyers are due to make their opening statement later on Monday.
Before opening statements began, state District Judge Tammy Kemp sequestered the jurors, shielding them from possible outside influence and local news coverage of the case.
Kemp also denied a motion to exclude evidence from Guyger’s texts and phone calls and a motion for a mistrial from Guyger’s attorneys who claimed Dallas District Attorney John Creuzot defied a gag order by giving an interview about the case to a local television station over the weekend.
The district attorney’s office reexamined the case after the public protests, and a grand jury in late November indicted Guyger on murder charges, with the maximum punishment of life in prison. https://reut.rs/2mxclAB
After the incident, she was initially placed on administrative leave but was fired days later.
(Reporting by Bruce Tamaso in Dallas, additional reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, writing by Brendan O’Brien; Editing by Scott Malone, Cynthia Osterman and Sonya Hepinstall)