The conviction of a former Dallas police officer in the fatal shooting of a black man mistaken as an intruder in his own home is a "huge victory ... for black people in America," a lawyer for the victim's family says.
A jury on Wednesday could decide whether Amber Guyger, who is white, will spend the rest of her life in prison. The same jury on Tuesday convicted her of murder in the death of Botham Jean, 26, as he ate a bowl of ice cream in his own apartment a year ago.
The penalty for murder is normally anywhere from five years to 99 years, but Judge Tammy Kemp told the jury Wednesday that they could consider a "sudden passion" defense that could reduce a sentence to as little as two years.
Guyger, 31, had testified at trial that she returned from an extended police shift and incorrectly believed she had entered her own apartment – and that Jean was a burglar. She shot him with her service weapon.
Jean family lawyer S. Lee Merritt said the verdict should have been expected but that convictions of white officers who kill unarmed black men are rare. The community had been "on pins and needles" awaiting the decision, Merritt said.
"It's a signal that the tide is going to change," he said of the verdict from the predominantly non-white jury. "Police officers are going to be held accountable for their actions."
Rep. Marc Veasey, D-Texas, who is black, was less certain. He called the conviction "a small step toward justice for Botham Jean and his family" but noted that all their lives have been changed forever.
"Justice will never fully be served until we as a country address the systemic failure in our criminal justice system and rightfully prosecute the spate of unjustified shootings of black men and boys in this country," Veasey said.
NAACP President Derrick Johnson lauded the jury for convicting Guyger despite a judge's order that they consider the state's "Castle Doctrine," a law similar to stand-your-ground laws that allows use of force, including deadly force, when someone believes their home, property or life are being threatened.
"We're one step closer to seeing justice for our brother #BothamJean," Johnson tweeted. "While the judge introduced a form of #StandYourGround on behalf of the killer #AmberGuyger, we applaud the jury for holding her accountable with a guilty verdict."
Testimony in the sentencing phase began Tuesday, with Jean's mother, Allison, saying her life has not been the same since her son's death.
"It’s just been like a roller coaster. I can’t sleep, I cannot eat," she said. "It’s just been the most terrible time for me."
Prosecutors showed the jury text messages from Guyger's cellphone that hint at insensitivity toward black people.
The messages include an exchange while she was working security during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade in Dallas. Guyger suggested participants could be pushed or pepper sprayed to expedite an end to the parade, and when asked when it would end, texted back, “When MLK is dead … Oh, wait …”
The jury took only hours to render the verdict after six days of testimony. It was not clear how long the sentencing phase would take.
During her trial, Guyger said she had parked on the wrong level of her apartment building's parking garage by mistake and walked down a corridor to the apartment directly above hers, thinking it was her own. She became worried when she noticed the door was unlocked, she said. Prosecutors said that was when Guyger should have called for backup.
Instead, Guyger testified that she feared for her safety and shot Jean when he failed to obey her command to put his hands up.
Guyger called 911 after the shooting. She can be heard repeatedly apologizing to Jean and saying she thought she was in her own apartment. Guyger was arrested days after the shooting and subsequently fired by the Dallas Police Department.
Contributing: Jorge L. Ortiz; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Amber Guyger sentencing: Jury decides prison time in Botham Jean death