Appellate court justices who will decide whether to throw out former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger’s murder conviction questioned her lawyer’s legal argument for reversing the jury’s decision during a hearing Tuesday.
Guyger’s lawyer, Michael Mowla, argued that evidence presented at trial did not support a murder charge because she mistakenly believed she was in her apartment when she fatally shot Botham Jean in his apartment, one floor above hers, on Sept. 6, 2018.
Guyger had just finished her shift and was still in uniform when she shot and killed Jean, who had been eating ice cream on his couch when she arrived.
Guyger is seeking a conviction on a lesser charge called criminally negligent homicide and a shorter prison sentence.
Jurors who found her guilty of murder in 2019 also sentenced her to 10 years in prison.
The maximum allotted prison time for criminally negligent homicide is two years.
Mowla and Dallas County prosecutor Douglas Gladden appeared via Zoom to argue their cases before justices for the Fifth Court of Appeals in Dallas during a 33-minute hearing. The district attorney’s office argued the jury’s murder conviction should stand.
Mowla tried to persuade justices that a provision of the criminal code, called mistake of fact, excused Guyger’s use of deadly force because she mistook the apartment for her own. The argument is different from self-defense.
Jurors considered and rejected both claims during her trial. Criminally negligent homicide was not an option for jurors to consider.
The justices have the authority to acquit someone and assess a new conviction on another charge, but it rarely happens.
They must find there was a legal problem at trial, said David Coale, an appellate lawyer who watched the hearing but is not involved in the case.
Justices interjected eight times during Mowla’s 20-minute presentation.
“You’re overlooking the fact that Ms. Guyger testified she intended to shoot Mr. Jean,” Chief Justice Robert D. Burns III said.
Mowla said he did not and argued that Guyger’s mistake negated her intent to commit murder.
“There has to be evidence negating the intent to kill,” Justice Lana Myers pressed. Justice Robbie Partida-Kipness nodded.
The question is not whether Guyger intended to kill, but whether the justices believe she would have been justified to shoot to kill if she had been in her own apartment, Mowla said.
But the justices questioned Mowla’s legal logic.
“Mr. Mowla, aren’t you erroneously mixing ‘mistake of fact’ defense and self-defense justification?” Myers said.
That was a “powerful question” that was hard for Mowla to answer, Coale said.
Guyger made a series of mistakes like parking on the wrong floor of the garage and failing to notice the red door mat in front of Jean’s apartment, Mowla said.
“The bottom line is she was convicted of walking into the wrong apartment and killing the occupant of that apartment,” Mowla said.
Prosecutors argue Mowla is misusing the “mistake of fact” provision. It applies when the person lacks the culpable mental state, which includes intent, to commit the crime they’re accused of, Gladden said. Reasonable belief that Guyger was in her apartment is not a culpable mental state, Gladden argued.
“She knew Botham was a living human being. She pointed a gun at him. She intended to kill him. That’s murder,” Gladden said.
Justices asked Gladden just one question — for past cases that support his argument — and praised his 136-page brief filed ahead of the hearing.
But Coale warned that the justices’ comments could mean very little for either side.