I’m having a Twitter discussion about the killing of Atatiana Jefferson. For once, it’s a reasonable discussion with someone willing to look up related data. (ferndog, I hope you realize how much I appreciate sanity on Twitter for once. Thank you.) Some things get a little complicated to explain in Twitter-sized bites, thus this blog post.
Said ferndog raises what can be a valid point. I call the killing murder. He says:
Took your advice, looked it up. Since it happened so quickly, intent will be hard to prove. Manslaughter should be open and shut, with the given evidence.
I think he may be mistaking intent for premeditation. In Texas law, intent is the factor that distinguishes between murder and manslaughter.
But intent does not mean the officer planned to kill Atatiana. It doesn’t even mean he decided to kill her in a surge of emotion under pressure.
Intent simply means: 1) he knew he was exercising deadly force, he meant to aim at a person, and he meant to squeeze the trigger. In fact, this was outlined rather well in the trial of Amber Guyger for murdering Botham Jean, which is why the jury rejected the judge’s suggestion of manslaughter; even if she thought she was in her apartment, she meant to shoot the “intruder.” (The question of whether she reasonably could have thought she was in her apartment was a separate issue — that of self defense — and was also rejected by the jury; her alleged belief was not reasonable, given all the cues she claimed to have missed.)
A hunting accident can be manslaughter. He wasn’t wearing an orange vest, so I thought he was a deer, so I shot him (an actual case in Georgia in the ’90s). The intent was to shoot a deer, not a person.
A child or idiot playing with a handgun and negligently discharging a round through a door, striking and killing someone who wasn’t targeted could be manslaughter. (Again, a real case; though complicated by possession of a stolen firearm.)
Another real case, from New Hampshire: informal police training on clearing a building. After the exercise, a sergeant was explaining some fine details and demonstrating. He pointed his sidearm at an officer and pulled the trigger. But he’d forgotten that he’d reloaded after the exercise proper. The officer survived, but that could have turned into a manslaughter charge, versus murder, because, while he meant to aim at a person, and he meant to pull the trigger, he did not mean to discharge a round he — stupidly — didn’t realize was in the chamber. (Actually, I always wondered about that case, but the thin blue line of silence…)
But in Fort Worth… Officer on a nonemergency call for a welfare check.* Instead of checking, he sneaks around the property with gun drawn. He sees a person in a window. He deliberately aims at the person. He begins a verbal command. He shoots the person.
For manslaughter, the officer would have to show at least one of four things.
- That he didn’t know that the object to which he was giving a verbal command was a person.
- That he wasn’t aiming at the person that he struck, while addressing that person.
- That he didn’t realize a round was chambered when he fired.
- That, even though he was aiming his drawn gun, and shouting at the person, and has already claimed he “perceived a threat,” that he didn’t mean to pull the trigger.
Murder, not manslaughter.
All that said, I expect the department fallback position to be “justifiable homicide,” which is more complicated yet, but also doesn’t apply.
* Yes, the FWPD is already spinning this as dispatch mistakenly coded the nonemergency welfare check call as an “Open Structure” call, in an attempt to give the officer some CYA. Unless they charge the dispatcher with manslaughter too, I don’t buy it. I’ve seen the excuse used so often, in so many jurisdictions, that I strongly suspect it’s a deliberate ass-coving policy to protect trigger-happy cops. And it still doesn’t change the facts of the shooting. The officer deliberately shot an innocent resident in her home.