Last Wednesday, the Dallas Bar Association hosted a lunchtime panel discussion at the Belo with some local journalists who covered the Amber Guyger trial. Jackson Walker partner Paul Watler moderated, and the participants included WFAA investigative reporter Tanya Eiserer, DMN reporter Jennifer Emily, DMN photojournalist Tom Fox, WFAA senior crime and justice reporter Rebecca Lopez, and Dallas criminal defense attorney Barry Sorrels. The discussion was fascinating, and the buffet lunch was delicious. Here are some highlights.
On providing live commentary:
Tanya Eiserer: When they asked me to do this, I had no idea just how intensive it was going to be. Because we basically were doing play-by-play. We did Facebook, YouTube, and also I think they had it on Twitter and like Periscope or something. And by the end of the trial, we were averaging 100,000 unique people. It was crazy, and people loved it. The folks on Facebook got to where they called themselves the Facebook Jury. We were able to help walk people through what was happening, as it was happening.
On reporting from the courthouse:
Rebecca Lopez: I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve covered multiple trials. I’ve been a journalist for 32 years, covered huge cases in various cities, but this by far was probably the case that got the most attention. If you even walked onto the floor where the courtroom was there were media from all over the world. It was chaos, honestly, sometimes. There were so many people there. And it was just the feel, because you had family, Botham Jean’s family, and then you had community activists who were very loud, and some wanting to get on television and make their points, and then you had Amber Guyger’s family. So you had all of these dynamics coming together, and all of these people coming together, in one little space. And so you had to navigate that. I thought it was probably one of the most incredible trials I have ever covered.
On being kept out of jury selection:
Lopez: We had one little thing that happened even prior to the trial where Judge Kemp didn’t let us into jury selection when they were filling out the jury questionnaires. And there were so many people who showed up for jury selection, which is a good thing, that they didn’t have room and they had to put people in an overflow room. But what she did was she shut down the courtroom, which is unconstitutional. You can’t do that. You have to allow the media, the public, access to the courtroom during jury selection. So I raised a really, really big red flag and a lot of commotion in the courthouse, and eventually I tracked down Jason Hermus as he came out to go to the bathroom, and I said, “You cannot keep us out of jury selection. I have a right to be in there. You need to tell the judge that it’s unconstitutional.” Eventually she came out and she said, “Well, the fire marshal says we can’t allow you in there because there’s no room.” And I’m like, “Well, it’s your courtroom, and you can make some seats available to us,” and eventually she did.
On the importance of Joshua Brown’s testimony:
Jennifer Emily: One thing that was interesting is that, while there were other witnesses who testified about things that they heard, the defense actually thought he was important to their case. Joshua Brown did have some criminal history, but the defense didn’t really bring it up because they thought, “Hey, he supports our case.” You heard him say that he heard two people meeting by surprise, and that they were talking at the same time and he couldn’t understand what they were saying. The defense believed that supported what they were saying, that Amber Guyger thought she was in her own apartment. She thought he was a burglar, and it was, “What are you doing here?” And Botham Jean had earpods in, so he couldn’t hear Amber Guyger, and he was apparently saying, “Hey, hey, hey! What are you doing?” And so, even though he couldn’t testify to the actual words, it kind of supported the version of events that Amber Guyger had.
On rumors and the shooting of Joshua Brown:
Emily: The Saturday after the trial, we had posted a story on our website about another murder in Dallas. We were noticing that it was getting a lot of traffic on Facebook. People were just posting it and posting it. And so we were wondering what’s going on with this? And then we started hearing, “It’s Joshua Brown.” And then I was able to reach Jason Hermus, the prosecutor in the case on Saturday, and he said, “Yeah, that is Joshua Brown.” So there were, as you heard, a lot of rumors that he was shot in the mouth, which ultimately turned out not to be true. But it was another tragic part of this case.
Lopez: One of the biggest issues that we had covering the Amber Guyger/Botham Jean case was rumors. And social media. Because so many things were being put out there that were inaccurate, and we can point to the Joshua Brown case. Part of it was an attorney that was putting out wrong information. And so we, as journalists, it was incumbent upon us to get out there and try to correct the record and tell the truth. And so we ended up doing a piece on Joshua Brown because the narrative that was being put out there by Lee Merritt and others was that he had been shot and that Dallas police somehow had done something nefarious to cause his death. But Joshua Brown shot a man that day, prior to him getting shot in a drug deal, and he had a long criminal history as a drug dealer. And there were a lot of things even prior to that, when the case first happened, where there were narratives being put out that were false. And we would do the stories to balance what was actually happening and to put the truth out there, and sometimes we got criticized for doing that.
Eiserer: So at 12:36 a.m. on October 5, I get a text message from a source who says, “So, the guy that showed up in t-shirt and shorts that testified in the trial that he was smoking marijuana with Jean was just shot and killed on Cedar Springs.” I’m asleep. I don’t see this until 5:55 a.m., and of course I respond, “Call me.” And then, you know, I’m saying, “Expletive, just woke up.” And then, you know, I’m very quickly finding out about what’s happening. And as that situation would ensue, one of the most frustrating things, I’m sure Jen and Rebecca feel the same way, is national media were putting out a lot of wrong information. They were framing stuff incorrectly. It was extremely frustrating as a local journalist to have national media outlets that I respect, or that I thought I respected, framing Joshua Brown as a key witness, making it seem like some cop had a reason to kill him. It was ridiculous. If you’re going to kill a witness, you do it before the trial. In my mind, he was a minor witness at best, and I would agree with Jen that he probably helped the defense more than he did the prosecution.
Emily: There were rampant rumors that continue to this day that Amber Guyger and Botham Jean knew each other. That they were dating. That there’s a picture of them on his Instagram where they are standing next to each other. And so we actually did a story and the headline was something like, “The Internet Is Wrong: Amber Guyger and Botham Jean Didn’t Know Each Other.” It turns out those were actually three women that he worked with at PricewaterhouseCoopers. None of them were police officers, and none of them were Amber Guyger. That’s just one example of many. It’s like you can’t kill the bad information. Even during the trial, I would get Twitter messages and emails: “You know they knew each other. You know they were dating.” It’s like, no, I know that they weren’t. His family says that they didn’t know each other. The prosecutors, the defense attorneys. There’s no phone records. There’s no evidence. As much as I think people would have found this case much more understandable if they had known each other, or if it had been a lovers’ quarrel, something gone wrong — we’ve seen that before. But the reason there was so much interest in this case is, we’ve never seen anything like it. And hopefully we never will again.
On the importance of Botham Jean’s character to the jury verdict:
Eiserer: I think it played a huge role. I mean, Botham Jean was an amazing person. His character was unassailable.
Lopez: And when you contrast that with that to how they portrayed Amber Guyger, having the affair with her partner, some of the things that she did, and her character issues in contrast to Botham Jean singing in the choir, and being a pillar in the community, and volunteering to feed the homeless and disadvantaged did play a big part in this trial.
Emily: I agree it was a really big part of this trial. It was also a really big part of the trial of Roy Oliver, who was convicted a year prior to Amber Guyger for murdering 15-year-old Jordan Edwards. He was also a wonderful person who by all accounts was going to grow up to be amazing. And I think a point of many who work on cases involving police-involved shootings, especially for the victim’s family and prosecutors who are prosecuting police officers, there’s a big question of how perfect do you have to be to get a conviction for being murdered. And obviously many police shootings are justified. Police officers’ lives are in danger, and they have to defend themselves, but with Roy Oliver and Amber Guyger the juries told us that wasn’t the case. They were not justified shootings. I think that’s something for us to look for as we will have more of these cases. Victims will have spotty backgrounds. That doesn’t necessarily mean that they deserve to be shot. And we now have another case here in North Texas, Atatiana Jefferson, who was in her house, playing video games and being a cool aunt with her nephew. When she hears a noise outside, she gets a gun from her purse. And when she looks out the window, she’s shot by a Fort Worth police officer. He didn’t come to her door, he didn’t announce himself as a policeman. This happened just on the heels of the Amber Guyger trial. We’ll have to see how that case goes when Aaron Dean goes on trial in Tarrant County.
Eiserer: Yeah, but imagine what would happen if there was no body cam in that case. I mean, body cams are a game changer, in that case for sure. Because we know what that officer did and didn’t do. You can see that he didn’t bang on the door, didn’t announce himself. And, you know, he would have been able to come up with a story, so to speak. But there’s a body cam.
Lopez: There’s a big case coming up in Dallas also with Genevieve Dawes, she was shot and killed by a Dallas police officer. She was in a vehicle with her boyfriend, and they were asleep. Now, police thought it was a stolen car, and there was a weapon in the vehicle and the boyfriend was a convicted felon. We’ve aired the video on our station. It’s really troubling when you see what the Dallas police officer did in that case. He just shot into the vehicle like 13 times, and he kills her. And there were people who believed that was unjustified, so he’s charged with manslaughter. But she does have a background, so it will be interesting to see what happens in that case. Because if you look at that video, it’s probably one of the more outrageous cases of footage I’ve ever seen in a police shooting.