As of right now, the jury is still out on Amber Guyger, the Dallas police officer who shot and killed Botham Jean in his own apartment.
Her criminal culpability is yet to be determined, but no one really disputes the basic facts of the case. Guyger entered Jean’s apartment, believing it was her own, and twice pulled the trigger with the intent to kill him.
Guyger’s defense rests on the argument that she believed she was acting in self-defense, in response to what she thought was an intruder in her apartment. That mistake of fact, her lawyers argue, acquits her of guilt on the murder charge she faces—and to make their case, the judge ruled on Monday that the defense could invoke Texas’s “castle doctrine” law, which justifies the use of lethal force to protect one’s property.
The castle doctrine is similar to “stand your ground” laws in that it provides a legal rationale for a person to kill someone without being in immediate, life-threatening danger.
Such laws have been controversial for years, often because of how race factors in. The highest-profile case involving “stand your ground” was the shooting of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by a man in his Florida neighborhood. In a 2017 study published in the journal Social Science Quarterly, researchers found that black defendants in Florida who cite “stand your ground” in cases involving a white victim were convicted nearly 100 percent of the time while white defendants who killed a white victim were acquitted at least 10 percent of the time.
Castle doctrine has been used to justify even more shocking incidents—such as the 2013 case in which Ezekiel Gilbert was acquitted of the murder of 23-year-old Lenora Evie Frago. Gilbert had hired Frago through a Craigslist ad that offered escort services for a $150 fee. Gilbert apparently believed the service should include sex, and when Frago wouldn’t have sex, he decided his money had been stolen. So he shot her. Frago was paralyzed, and she later died of the injuries. At trial, Gilbert’s attorneys centered their defense on Section 9.42 of the Texas Penal Code, which allows for the use of deadly force to prevent someone “fleeing immediately after committing burglary, robbery, aggravated robbery, or theft during the nighttime from escaping with the property.”
Gilbert went free.
In the Amber Guyger case, the statute is being argued in a particularly broad way. Her attorneys insist that because Guyger believed that she was entering her own apartment, she therefore had the right to defend it from Jean, who was inside watching television and eating ice cream. Under the castle doctrine, she did not have to believe that Jean was an active threat to her life or safety—she simply had to “believes the force is immediately necessary to prevent or terminate the other’s trespass.” On its face, it seems absurd: Guyger was the trespasser and Jean was the person whose property was being trespassed upon.
In 2007, a similar case played out in San Antonio—except the roles were reversed. Tracy Glass, a nineteen-year-old college student, mistakenly entered the property of San Antonio resident Ray Lemes, believing it to be his sister’s house, at which he was staying. Lemes shot and killed Glass. He was later acquitted.
Under Texas law, if Jean had been armed, he would have had the same right to use deadly force on Guyger. (Whether a jury would have been sympathetic to a young black man who shot and killed a white police officer is a question that’s hard not to ask, in light of the research done on the way that race impacts the execution of these laws.) Which means that—the way that the defense is arguing the case—an intruder and a resident could both shoot at each other, if they both believe they’re in their own homes, and nobody would be committing a crime. It’s a strange law that promotes a kind of lawlessness.
We don’t know yet what verdict the jury will return. As of Monday evening, the jurors retired to their hotel, and will resume deliberations early Tuesday. But the fact that the castle doctrine is factoring into the Guyger case at all—again, she was the intruder and he was the person in his own “castle”—suggests that the law is absurdly overbroad. It can be used to justify killing a person when they enter your property, and it can be used to justify killing a person when you trespass on their property. It can be used to justify killing a woman if you assumed you were buying sex from her, and you didn’t receive it. It can be used—as in another 2007 case—to justify killing two men who robbed a neighbor’s property, despite being told not to by a 911 operator. Its intention may have been to make people and their property safer—but the way that it’s been argued in Texas courts puts a lot of people at risk, instead.