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(DALLAS NEWS) — If Amber Guyger’s attorneys get their wish to move the fired Dallas police officer’s murder trial to another county, her jury figures to be whiter and more conservative, according to an analysis by The Dallas Morning News.
Defense attorneys filed a motion last week saying Guyger can’t get a fair trial in Dallas because of all the publicity after she shot 26-year-old Botham Jean in his apartment.
But the populations of the six counties that her attorneys suggest as alternatives are less diverse and more suburban and rural.
That shift could affect the outcome of the trial and make a jury less likely to convict Guyger, said Patrick Bayer, a Duke economics professor who has studied links between the racial makeup of juries and trial outcomes. He found that less diversity in the jury room does a disservice to justice.
“If you move a trial from a more racially and ethnically diverse community, you’re going to increase the chance for acquittal, which is why they are making the motion in the first place,” said Bayer. “The legal argument, of course, is pretrial publicity.”
Defense attorneys Robert Rogers, Toby Shook and Michael Mowla did not respond to a request for comment, and a spokeswoman for the district attorney’s office declined to comment.
A gag order signed by state District Judge Tammy Kemp, who will decide whether to move the trial, prevents defense attorneys and prosecutors from commenting publicly on the case.
It’s unclear when Kemp will rule on the motion to change the trial’s venue. She could choose to hold a hearing or make a decision without hearing arguments.
Just as the white majority substantially increases in Collin, Ellis, Fannin, Grayson, Kaufman and Rockwall counties, residents there are also more conservative. While Dallas County swung blue in the last three presidential elections, the six counties where the defense wants to move the case voted Republican.
Bayer said race, political affiliation, age and sometimes gender all play a role in how jurors vote.
The population of Dallas County was 29 percent white in 2017, according to the state’s most recent estimates available. In Collin County, that number jumps to 58 percent — and the numbers are higher in the other five counties. Grayson and Fannin counties have the least diverse populations with white majorities of 76 percent and 78 percent, respectively.
Polling shows Republicans have a more favorable view of police officers than independents or Democrats — although no group was anti-cop.
Guyger, 30, was off duty but in her police uniform Sept. 6 when she shot Jean, a 26-year-old accountant, as he watched football in his apartment. She said she mistook his apartment for hers and believed he was a burglar.
Guyger is white, and Jean was a black man from St. Lucia, who had one day hoped to return to his country to run for prime minister.
Jean’s death was covered not only locally but also by statewide, national and international news media. Guyger’s attorneys say she can’t get a fair trial in Dallas because the media coverage was inflammatory and prejudicial. Prosecutors want Kemp to hold a hearing and try to seat a jury in Dallas County before she makes a decision.
The trial is slated for Sept. 23, with jury selection beginning on the anniversary of Jean’s death.
Defense attorneys suggested moving the trial to one of the other six counties in the same administrative judicial region.
They are also all in North Texas, and residents there potentially saw the same news coverage Guyger’s attorneys say would prevent her from getting a fair trial in Dallas.
Philip Stinson, a criminology professor at Ohio’s Bowling Green State University, said the coverage has been pervasive outside Dallas, just as it is in many officer-involved shootings. He said most of those cases, though, involve on-duty shootings.
Stinson, a former lawyer and former police officer, isn’t involved in the case, but he read both the defense’s motion to change the venue and the prosecution’s objection.
“I certainly can understand why a criminal defense lawyer would file a motion to change venue in any high-profile criminal case,” said Stinson, who studies criminal behavior by police officers, including officer-involved shootings. “The prosecution’s objection to the motion makes sense to me, and it will be interesting to see how the court handles this.”
If Kemp grants a change of venue, the case doesn’t have to stay in the same judicial region.
To move it elsewhere in Texas, both the prosecutors and the defense would have to agree or Kemp would have to find that it would be just as difficult for Guyger to have a fair trial in the other nearby counties.
Other counties with large cities have more diverse populations, such as Bexar and Harris counties. Having jurors with different backgrounds, including age, race, political party and socioeconomic status, can lead to a more thorough conversation in the jury room. Jurors might make points that others on the panel would never consider without their input.
Most police officer trials don’t move
Across the country, the trials of most police officers charged after shootings remain in the community where the incident happened, Stinson said, just as with trials that don’t involve officer shootings.
In Dallas County, the recent murder trials of two police officers who are now serving prison time remained here.
A judge denied a change of venue for Balch Springs Officer Roy Oliver, who murdered 15-year-old Jordan Edwards in April 2017 when Oliver fired into a car full of teens as it drove away. The boys in the car were not armed and had done anything wrong.
Like Jean’s death, Jordan’s murder had a great deal of local, statewide and international coverage. Jordan, his brothers and two friends had been at a party and left when they heard gunshots coming from the parking lot of a nearby nursing home.
Oliver was sentenced to 15 years in prison on Aug. 28. Guyger shot Jean nine days later.
Farmers Branch Officer Ken Johnson’s trial also remained in Dallas. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in January 2018 after he was convicted of murdering another teenager.
Johnson was off duty and in plainclothes when he chased down Jose Cruz and Edgar Rodriguez after the two 16-year-olds broke into his Chevrolet Tahoe at the officer’s Farmers Branch apartment complex. Johnson rammed their car off the road, hopped out of his SUV and shot 16 times into the teens’ car. He killed Jose and wounded Edgar.
Although most cases against police officers nationally stay in the community where the incident happened, some are moved to other jurisdictions.
On Thursday, a Florida judge moved the trial of a former police officer charged with manslaughter to a nearby county.
In that case,former Punta Gorda officer Lee Coel is believed to have accidentally shot 73-year-old Mary Knowlton, a retired librarian, during a “shoot, don’t shoot” demonstration at the citizens police academy. The officer’s gun was supposed to be loaded with blanks but instead had live ammunition.
Coel’s lawyers argued that the trial should be moved because potential jurors could have seen negative social media comments about Coel.
In Dallas, a change of venue is rarely granted. Courthouse observers could think of only two in the last 20 years or so. In both cases, prosecutors sought the death penalty.
Darlie Routier, who killed her sons in 1997 in Rowlett, was tried in Kerr County. Michael Rodriguez, one of the Texas 7 escapees who murdered Irving police Officer Aubrey Hawkins on Christmas Eve 2000, was tried in East Texas.
Routier remains on death row, and Rodriguez was executed in 2008.
Even rarer is for an appellate court to say a Dallas trial court should have moved the case elsewhere.
There’s just one case like that: Jack Ruby’s trial for killing Lee Harvey Oswald in 1963.
Days after Oswald killed John F. Kennedy, Ruby walked down the ramp of the Dallas Police Department’s parking garage and shot the president’s assassin.
Cameras captured Ruby shooting Oswald as police were about to transfer him to jail. Many saw the shooting live on TV, and it was captured by photographers.
Texas’ highest criminal court, the Court of Criminal Appeals, found that Jacob Rubenstein — Ruby’s real name — was denied a fair murder trial, in part because the trial remained in Dallas. He died of cancer before he could be tried again.
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