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Who Gets to Control a Killer's Story?

On Botham Shem Jean and the American obsession with criminalizing dead black people.
Mourners carry a wreath of flowers at the funeral service for Botham Shem Jean at the Greenville Avenue Church of Christ in Richardson, Texas, on September 13th, 2018.

Mourners carry a wreath of flowers at the funeral service for Botham Shem Jean at the Greenville Avenue Church of Christ in Richardson, Texas, on September 13th, 2018.

The Dallas Police Department fired officer Amber Guyger last week, nearly three weeks after she walked into the apartment of Botham Shem Jean and shot him dead, claiming later that she had mistaken his apartment for her own. Though her lawyer insisted that Guyger's dismissal was premature, and was made to appease pressure from "anti-police groups," there are plenty of Americans who would argue that Guyger should have been fired the same week she shot Jean. As the stories of the killing spilled out, it became clear that Guyger had shot an unarmed man inside his own apartment. Jean was not suspected of any crime, and Guyger was off duty at the time.

Soon, thanks to the news, Americans became more familiar with Jean, including a report that marijuana was found in his apartment; his family's attorneys characterized the report as a "smear" from the police to discredit rosier stories about Jean, which paint him as an invested community member with strong ties to his church, job, family, and friends. In many ways, Jean looks like an inconvenient victim for the police, particularly given the ways that media and pro-police activists tend to frame these murders: He wasn't committing a crime at the time of the murder, and there wasn't really anything in his past to dig up in an attempt to justify his killing. The marijuana became the sole option for commentators looking to cover for the officer.

Throughout the media's treatment of the case, what stood out to me was how little we immediately knew, or even know now, about the police officer, Amber Guyger. Initial reports did not indicate whether or not she was under the influence of alcohol or drugs when she erroneously entered Jean's apartment, but even beyond that, we've learned very little about her life or personal history or anything that would help the incident make some kind of sense.

This discrepancy isn't exclusive to the Guyger case. When police officers kill people, specifically people of color, stories about the dead become the center of the conversation, as we air the misdemeanors of a person whose death means they can't defend their legacy, or the way it might be used to further a debate around race, power, and policing. Most of the time, the officers themselves don't have their histories unearthed in the same manner as their victims. I've thought about this discrepancy often since the killing of Michael Brown and the 2015 New Yorker profile on Darren Wilson, the officer who shot Brown. Why did Wilson get to speak for himself, on such an august platform, especially after Brown had been molded into whatever a fearful segment of the public needed him to be? I felt that the public should have had a fuller chance to do that with Wilson; to dig into his personal history and his family's history and draw conclusions about the type of person he was even before he pulled the trigger. While the New Yorker profile did some of this digging, it was still driven largely by Wilson's own version of the narrative, particularly about what his life was like after the shooting. Here again, national media gave primacy to the story of the killer, painting him as complicated.

Speaking on the Longform podcast last September, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah discussed how she'd reported her Pulitzer Prize-winning feature in GQ, "A Most American Terrorist: The Making of Dylann Roof." As Ghansah explained, while she'd gone to Charleston to tell the stories of Roof's victims, she soon realized that those stories were already being written. The harder story was to figure out where Roof had come from, and Ghansah did this by interrogating his family, old friends, and neighbors. Her idea, she told the Longform hosts, what that she had to show the world that if you murder innocent people, someone is going to show up at the door of your family members and friends, asking for some accountability. Someone is going to trace your history to find out exactly what kind of person could be driven to do this.

Guyger isn't Dylann Roof. We don't have any indication, for example, that she had camped out on far-right, white-supremacist websites, and she certainly wasn't trying to start a race war, as Roof claimed he was. But she deserves a fuller public scrutiny than Jean.

It makes sense to me, then, that there should be cycles of news dedicated to killers and their interior lives, sourced in part by talking to their friends, families, and co-workers—even, or especially, if those killers are in positions of power, or appointed by the state. Instead of working to ascertain whether or not the dead deserve to be dead, we need to look more closely at the life of the person who kills. It is notably difficult to convict police officers in shootings, and it is hard to separate this fact from the ways that powerful people in the media choose to frame stories about the dead and the living, and about the responsibilities of people in power. As long as we have to live with the current system of policing, Americans need to interrogate not just officers involved in killings, but also the people who hired them, the people who worked with them, the people who trained them, and the people who love them. Otherwise, the killers escape into the background, and all we're left with is the noise of people arguing over the worthiness of the dead.