Thursday, October 3, 2019

Former Dallas, TX, police officer Amber Guyger is sentenced to 10 years in prison for a "murder" she did not commit, as trial court fails to properly apply one of the most profound concepts in U.S. criminal law

Botham Jean's brother hugs Amber Guyger
at yesterday's sentencing.

Former Texas police officer Amber Guyger yesterday received a 10-year prison sentence in the shooting death of Botham Jean, an event a Dallas jury incorrectly found to be a murder. How do we know the jury erred, -- probably along with the judge and prosecutors?  It goes back to a 25-year-old case where a Dallas-area husband named Michael Williams went looking for his wife, found her conversing with a man named  Lawrence Earl Cook, and wound up with a fatal stab wound to the chest.

Cook was charged with murder, and a jury convicted him of voluntary manslaughter. At the close of trial, Cook's attorney objected to the judge's jury instructions on definitions of culpable mental states, particularly the words "knowingly" and "intentionally," which are at the heart of murder law in the Texas Penal Code. The trial judge denied the objections, the Texas Court of Appeals denied the objections and upheld Cook's conviction, but the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals -- in a case styled Cook v. State, 884 SW 2d 485 (Tex Court of Criminal Appeals, 1994) -- overruled the jury instructions, clarified the meanings of "intentionally" and "knowingly," reversed Cook's conviction, and remanded the case to the trial court.

The Cook ruling makes clear that it -- and the Guyger case -- involve one of the most profound concepts in American law. But our analysis shows the Guyger court butchered the concept. In the aftermath of the verdict, social-media commentators -- mostly liberals (like me), it appears -- are celebrating the Guyger outcome, some even critical that she received only a 10-year sentence. But no American should celebrate when a fellow citizen is wrongly convicted of a crime. We did not celebrate when former Alabama governor Don Siegelman was wrongly convicted of bribery-related offenses, and we should not celebrate when Amber Guyger is wrongly found guilty of murder.

Botham Jean
How does Cook v. State inform us about Guyger? First, we must look at issues related to jury instructions. We have not seen a full copy of the jury instructions in the Amber Guyger case, but multiple news reports indicate the definition of intentional that was deemed incorrect in Cook was used in Guyger.  In fact, Dallas District Attorney John Creuzot made out-of-court statements that indicate he intended to push for the case to be decided on a flawed definition of "intentional." That was one of several dubious statements that suggest  prosecutors were so hungry for a conviction, they did not mind if the law -- and justice -- got trampled.

Next, we need to take a closer look at the facts in Cook. Here is how they are described in the ruling, with husband Michael Williams referred to as "decedent":

The decedent and two co-workers were searching for the decedent's wife, when they saw appellant talking to the wife. The decedent confronted appellant and ordered appellant to leave. Appellant and decedent began to argue and shove each other. During the altercation, appellant stabbed the decedent in the chest with a knife. After stabbing the decedent, appellant said: "I didn't mean to hurt you, man." The decedent died as a result of the stab wound. 
Appellant was charged with murder under Tex.Penal Code Ann. § 19.02(a)(1). The indictment alleged appellant: 
... knowingly and intentionally cause[d] the death of [the decedent], an individual, by stabbing [the decedent] with a knife a deadly weapon.
Notice the evidence that Cook did not intend to hurt the "decendent" -- or cause him to become a "decedent."

At trial, a dispute ensued about the meaning under Texas law of "knowingly" and "intentionally," as spelled out in the following colloquy (as lawyers like to say) between the trial judge and Cook's attorney, Mr. Tinsley:

At the close of trial, appellant objected to portions of the definitions and application portions in the jury charge and requested the following limitations on the definitions of intentionally and knowingly:

MR. TINSLEY: The objection that I now make on the record goes to the definition of knowingly and intentionally, which happen to be defined for the jury in the abstract in the Court's charge. And we object to the Court's charge defining knowingly and intentionally as it reads under 6.03(a) and (b) of the code—of the Penal Code.

And the reason we object is that it is our theory that the crime of murder is a result offense, rather than a conduct offense, and we object because the Court's charge does not limit the definition of both culpable mental states to the result of the offense only.

THE COURT: I'm going to overrule that requested charge.

MR. TINSLEY: Note my exception.

The Texas Court of Criminal Appeals ultimately found Mr. Tinsley was right, reversing his client's conviction and stating:

We have long held that intentional murder is a "result of conduct" offense. Martinez v. State, 763 S.W.2d 413, 419 (Tex. Cr.App.1988), and Lugo-Lugo, 650 S.W.2d at 80, 88. As a "result of conduct" offense "[w]hat matters is that the conduct (whatever it may be) is done with the required culpability to effect the result the Legislature has specified." Alvarado, 704 S.W.2d at 39 (emphasis in original). Any other language relating to conduct is inconsequential. Id. As the San Antonio Court of Appeals correctly stated in Wallace v. State, 763 S.W.2d 628 (Tex.App.—San Antonio 1989):

Murder is an offense which requires that the culpable mental state accompany the result of the conduct, rather than the nature of the conduct. A charge which defines "intentionally" or "knowingly" as they relate to the nature of the conduct as well as the result of the conduct is error.

How does this tie to the Guyger conviction? Consider these words from a Dallas Morning News editorial, focusing on statements of District Attorney John Creuzot to justify bringing a murder charge:

We’re on record with our worries that Dallas District Attorney John Creuzot took a big risk in charging Guyger with murder rather than manslaughter. Creuzot and his prosecutors pointed out that Guyger didn’t accidentally discharge her weapon. She intended to shoot Jean. Manslaughter calls for a determination of recklessness.

Creuzot's statement that "Guyger didn't accidentally discharge her weapon" is a reference to the "nature of he conduct" that the Cook court described as "inconsequential," with the "result of the conduct" (did she intend to kill Jean?") being the only issue that matters in a Texas murder case.

Creuzot's statement indicates his office intended to use a faulty definition of the "intentional" state of mind to seek a conviction in the Guyger case.That indicates his office comes up short on matters of ethics. That's not the only dubious statement from prosecutors. Consider the following from CNN:

"I ask God for forgiveness, and I hate myself every single day. ... I wish he was the one with the gun who had killed me. I never wanted to take an innocent person's life," [Guyger] said.

Prosecutor Jason Fine seized on her testimony -- specifically, her assertion that she would never want anyone to endure what she's gone through -- before attacking Guyger as an unreasonable person who decided to kill Jean before she opened his apartment door.

"Are you kidding?" Fine said Monday, crumpling up a piece of paper from which he was reading. "That is garbage. Most of what she said was garbage."

That is garbage? You have to go to law school to come up with a brilliant rebuttal like that? I've heard more enlightened arguments from third graders on a school bus. And where did Fine get the notion that Guyger "decided to kill Jean before she opened his apartment door"? Was such evidence introduced at trial? I've seen no sign of it. And if Guyger thought she was entering her apartment -- as she emotionally stated 19 times on a call to 911 shortly after the shooting -- why would she have intended to kill Jean before opening the door, when apparently she had no idea he was there, and she was at the wrong apartment?

This is in keeping with the mumbo-jumbo we've seen from prosecutors over the years: in general, they want a win -- a notch to put on their professional belt -- with little or no concern about whether justice was served.

How badly was justice butchered in the Guyger case. Consider the Cook court's statement about the profound issues presented in such a case:

This case involves the most basic and fundamental concept of criminal law, that in order to constitute a crime, the act or actus reus must be accompanied by a criminal mind or mens rea. Perhaps this concept was best explained by the United States Supreme Court many years ago in Morissette v. United States, 342 U.S. 246, 72 S.Ct. 240, 96 L.Ed. 288 (1952).

"The contention that an injury can amount to a crime only when inflicted by intention is no provincial or transient notion. It is as universal and persistent in mature systems of law as belief in freedom of the human will and a consequent ability and duty of the normal individual to choose between good and evil ...

"Unqualified acceptance of this doctrine by English common law in the Eighteenth Century was indicated by Blackstone's sweeping statement that to constitute any crime there must first be a "vicious will."...

"Crime, as a compound concept, generally constituted only from concurrence of an evil-meaning mind with an evil-doing hand, was congenial to an intense individualism and took deep and early root in American soil. As the states codified the common law crimes, even if their enactments were silent on the subject, their courts assumed that the omission did not signify disapproval of the principle but merely recognized that intent was so inherent in the idea of the offense that it required no statutory affirmation."

In State v. Guyger, the law of intent was twisted and perverted to such an extent that it was virtually unrecognizable -- and it produced a grossly unjust outcome. None of us should be celebrating that.

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