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Jurors in Amber Guyger murder trial are considering Texas’ Castle Doctrine

The judge in the murder trial of ex-Dallas police Officer Amber Guyger directed the jury on Monday to consider Texas’ version of a self-defense law when deciding whether she had the right to protect herself when she fatally shot her neighbor.

But the case, which has drawn national attention for its tragic set of circumstances, is not as simple as Guyger defending herself in her apartment from a man who she believed was a burglar. It was Guyger who confused neighbor Botham Jean’s apartment inside their Dallas complex for her own, walked inside and opened fire, saying she feared for her life when he came toward her.

Although Guyger was not in her own home, jurors were told they can consider Texas’ so-called Castle Doctrine as part of her defense. They are ultimately weighing whether she is guilty of murder, a lesser charge of manslaughter or neither.

A finding of murder would mean that Guyger, 31, acted as the aggressor and intended to kill Jean, a 26-year-old accountant known as Bo, while manslaughter would mean she caused his death by acting recklessly in the September 2018 shooting.

Guyger was fired as a Dallas police officer in the wake of Jean’s death.

Legal experts say this may be the first time that the Castle Doctrine is being applied to someone who killed a person in that person’s home.

The question of how the Castle Doctrine can come into play in Guyger’s case has been discussed on social media. Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, suggested Guyger could be acquitted because of it.

At least 25 states have some form of a Castle Doctrine, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan nongovernmental organization. Such laws generally dictate when a person can use force, including deadly force, when they feel like their home (or “castle”), property or life are being threatened.

In addition, such laws can go further — known as “stand your ground” — and don’t require people who feel that their life is in danger in a place where they’re allowed to be to have to retreat before they can use force.

Texas’ law, passed in 2007, is also broader in that a person can use force in a place where they legally are allowed, such as a store or sidewalk.

Self-defense can be considered “reasonable” under these parameters: The person who used deadly force believed someone was illegally on their property; they didn’t provoke the other person who was on their property; they weren’t engaged in criminal activity at the time; and they believed that force was immediately necessary.

Prosecutors on Monday attempted to dissuade the judge from allowing the Castle Doctrine to be considered because Guyger was the one who entered Jean’s home.

“It protects homeowners against intruders, and now all of a sudden, the intruder is trying to use it against the homeowner. This law is not in place for her,” prosecutor Jason Fine said of Guyger. “It’s in place for Bo.”

Alex Piquero, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas, said he was surprised by the judge’s decision to allow for the jury to consider the Castle Doctrine.

“The only rationale I can think of here is that the judge was allowing for the possibility that Ms. Guyger thought she was in her own home, which is what the Castle Doctrine is designed for,” Piquero said in an email. “But the odd part of this, of course, is that it technically was not her home — she only believed that it was.”

“I think the jury will have to think very carefully about this issue: perception versus reality, and whether they can get in Ms. Guyger’s head/state of mind during that evening,” he added, “and if the jury can come to a decision about whether they’re willing to believe that she believed it was her home — independent of the fact that it was not her home.”

Legal experts say the jury could consider the Castle Doctrine to determine that Guyger ultimately didn’t murder Jean. But it will have been up to the state during the weeklong trial to disprove that she couldn’t have believed she was in her own home.

Prosecutors pointed to several sensory cues that they say should have signaled to Guyger that it was not her apartment, including a red doormat outside of Jean’s unit that she did not have.

Guyger testified that she was tired after a 13½-hour shift.

Her lawyers have said she made a “mistake of fact” in entering Jean’s apartment — a defense that will also require the jury to determine if Guyger acted reasonably when she believed she was killing an intruder in her own home.

Kenneth Williams, a criminal law professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston, said jurors will have a lot to consider on the second day of deliberations.

“Basically, she’s putting forth two defenses: because of her mistake of fact she had a right to use deadly force to protect her home,” Williams said. “It will ultimately come down to whether she was reasonable in believing that she was entering her own home.”