In the pending Texas case, Amber Guyger entered the darkened apartment of Botham Jean, shot and killed him. She claimed that she erroneously believed the apartment to be hers and believed that Mr. Jean was a burglar. As an off-duty police officer, her firearm was easily accessible. Since the apartment was dark, she could only perceive Mr. Jean as a silhouette. After shouting commands and without turning on the lights, she fired her weapon and killed Mr. Jean. Only after shooting him, did she turn on lights thereby ascertaining that she was not in her apartment after all. The authorities filed the lesser crime of manslaughter. What would have happened in North Carolina?
ISSUE #1: Is this murder or manslaughter? The undisputed facts show only that the lawful occupant, Mr. Jean was shot by Ms. Guyger. The only way a manslaughter charge could have been filed in the Texas case is if the affirmative defense of Imperfect Self-Defense was accepted whole-heartedly by the Texas authorities. Imperfect Self-Defense occurs when the defendant believed it is necessary to kill her adversary in order to save herself from death or great bodily harm. In addition, defendant’s belief must be reasonable in that the circumstances as they appeared to her at the time were sufficient to create such a belief in the mind of a person of ordinary firmness. (State v. Ross (1994) 338 N.C. 280, 283, 449 S.E.2d 556, 559–60.)
Whether Ms. Guyger’s belief was reasonable is quite debatable and should be put before the trier of fact. If Ms. Guyger would have turned on the lights, she would have realized immediately that she was the interloper. Is it reasonable for her to shoot into the dark apartment when her safety had not been threatened? At trial, it would be Ms. Guyger’s obligation to prove the affirmative defense and the jury would decide whether she has sustained that burden or not. The self-defense case is not so ironclad that it negates the probable cause to believe that a second-degree murder was committed. The proper charge under North Carolina law would be second-degree murder and not the lesser charge of manslaughter.
ISSUE #2: Does Ms. Guyger have a good affirmative defense? Under North Carolina law, would Guyger’s mistake of fact constitute a complete or partial affirmative defense? Short answer: no. In North Carolina, she would properly face a second-degree murder charge and should be convicted of the same. Amber Guyger was the aggressor, did not have a lawful right to be in Mr. Jean’s apartment and did not act reasonably.
Under North Carolina law, a person can use deadly force if the person reasonably believes that the conduct is necessary to defend herself against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force or if that person is in their own home. (NCGS § 14-51.2, NCGS § 14-51.3)
According to her version, Mr. Jean’s silent presence would not be sufficient to cause a reasonable person to believe that any force was imminent and despite her confusion, Ms. Guyger was not in her home and did not have a lawful right to be there; only Mr. Jean did. Only Mr. Jean had the right to defend his home against the true intruder, Ms. Guyger, and any force he could have used would have been lawful. (NCGS § 14-51.2.) Under North Carolina law, only Mr. Jean was a lawful resident of the apartment and could use deadly force.
1. As an off-duty police officer acting in the capacity of a private person, her actions should be judged as any other civilian.
2. The lawful occupant of a home is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent death or serious bodily harm to himself if both of the following apply: (1) The person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a home and (2) The person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred. (c) The presumption set forth in subsection (b) of this section shall be rebuttable and does not apply in any of the following circumstances: (1) The person against whom the defensive force is used has the right to be in or is a lawful resident of the home. (NCGS§ 14-51.2. (b)(c))