Jurisprudence

It Matters That Amber Guyger Faced a Diverse Jury

Juries are overwhelmingly white. That affects who they empathize with.

Allison Jean, mother of Botham Shem Jean, stands with family and church members of Greenville Avenue Church of Christ after the funeral service on Sept. 13, 2018, in Richardson, Texas.
Allison Jean, mother of Botham Shem Jean, stands with family and church members of Greenville Avenue Church of Christ after the funeral service on Sept. 13, 2018, in Richardson, Texas.
Stewart F. House/Getty Images

A Texas jury found Amber Guyger guilty of murder on Tuesday in the death of her neighbor, Botham Jean, in 2018. Guyger, a white police officer, lived directly below Jean, who is black. She accidentally walked into his apartment, believing it was her own, and shot Jean to death. She admitted to the shooting but testified that she thought she was acting in self-defense, believing Jean was an intruder in her home.

Observers were shocked at the guilty verdict, as law enforcement officers accused of misconduct are rarely convicted of a criminal offense. One possible factor in the unusual outcome of the Guyger trial may be the diversity of the jury: Ten of the 12 jurors were nonwhite. Research indicates that diverse juries make better decisions that are less likely to be biased or tainted by racism. Yet there is a troubling lack of diversity among juries across the country.

Racial minorities do not respond to jury summons at the same rate as whites; they face more financial or employment-related obstacles to jury service; and they are disproportionately likely to be struck by prosecutors.

On Tuesday, I spoke with William Snowden—the New Orleans director of the Vera Institute of Justice and founder of the Juror Project, which seeks to educate communities about racial discrimination in jury selection and the importance of jury service—about the Guyger verdict and the potential impact of the jury’s diversity. Our interview has been edited for clarity.

Mark Joseph Stern: Why does jury diversity matter?

William Snowden: There’s a guarantee of having a jury of your peers that’s embodied in our Sixth Amendment. Jury service allows the community to have a voice in deciding who it is we believe should be sent to prison and convicted of a particular crime and who should not be sent to prison and convicted of a crime. We know the benefits of diversity in terms of advocating for a diverse board room for a corporation or diverse classroom for education. If we’re really serious about the fairness of our criminal legal system, we need to be advocating for diversity in the jury room.

The research demonstrates that when you have more diverse juries, you have more objective outcomes. That’s something that we should be striving for; it’s what we want to see in our criminal legal system. Decisions of innocence or guilt shouldn’t be made subjectively in a vacuum. We need to understand how to create an atmosphere of diversity that produces the most objective decision.

I understand that on an abstract level, but how does diversity play a beneficial role in the jury room more specifically?

If there is a particular member of the community who has had a negative experience with the police department and is familiar with police brutality, they can use their perspective to sit on a jury and say, “I’m familiar with police brutality and misconduct. What’s been presented in this trial is not police misconduct.” That’s a valuable perspective.

Or look at cross-racial identification and its deficiencies. [Eyewitnesses are less likely to correctly identify an individual of a different race.] Imagine if there’s video surveillance that allegedly shows the defendant. If you have a person on the jury who’s the same race as the person on the video surveillance, they may have a better sense of whether that’s the same person or not.

There’s a benefit of diversity in terms of interpretation of language, too. There’s an example from 2018 where a person in New Orleans being questioned by the police told an officer, “I want a lawyer, dawg.” [The courts held that he had asked for a “lawyer dog,” not invoked his right to counsel.] It’s really offensive that their statement wasn’t seen as an invocation of a right to an attorney, that these judges would not acknowledge this person’s vernacular.

Similarly, a jury without varied perspectives might miss information due to a lack of familiarity with a particular group. Its understanding can be supplemented by a juror who’s familiar with that group in terms of things like language.

The jury that convicted Amber Guyger of murder was quite diverse. How do you think that might have affected the outcome of the case?

In this particular case, reports indicated that there were five black jurors, five Hispanic or Asian jurors, and two white jurors, with two black and two white alternates. Having a majority-minority jury creates a different perspective on the value of decedent in this case, Mr. Jean. Part of closing argument from the defense was the fact that Mr. Jean had marijuana in his system when he was shot. Too often we have seen cases where there are attempts to justify the killing based on alleged bad characteristics of the decedent.

In cases in which police officers have not been convicted of killing an unarmed person, there is sometimes a lot of sympathy and empathy for the police officer. A non-diverse jury may have more sympathy for law enforcement than they do the actual decedent; it may believe that the decedent is not worthy of sympathy but police officers are.

Here, because it was more representative of the community, the jury may have had a different sense of empathy—empathy for Mr. Jean. The jury may not have been swayed by any kind of perceived negativity that could be associated with Mr. Jean as it related to marijuana use.

Earlier, you mentioned that jury diversity can lead to more objective outcomes. Empathy seems, to me, at odds with objectivity, so I’m curious how you square that.

Bryan Stevenson often talks about how we are so much more than the worst thing we have ever done in our lives. Having that empathy for an individual is important if you’re a juror: You should remember that you are judging one particular moment in time, and it’s probably a moment the defendant isn’t proud of.

I also believe empathy should play a role in understanding the collateral consequences of conviction. It’s not just that individual who will be serving time. A conviction has an impact on families and children that we don’t always see in that courtroom. The idea that the law lives in this black and white atmosphere is devoid of the understanding of how harmful overincarceration can be. But we have to strike a balance. We shouldn’t be blindly swayed by empathy; we should understand that the laws in place are supposed to be guidance on how we want to promote safety in our communities.