Hubert Humphrey once said, “To err is human; to blame someone else is politics.” But I like better what someone else said: “We all make mistakes. But we cannot let those mistakes define us.”
But sometimes they do. And sometimes our mistakes define others as well.
Amber Guyger might be one of those persons defined by her mistake. If you live in DFW, or Texas, or even in America, and have not heard the story, then you probably live in a cave. Guyger, of course, killed a young black man in his apartment while he watched TV and ate ice cream. Her mistake? She thought she had entered her own apartment and had found an intruder inside. Although a “mistake in fact” is a valid legal defense, it must be a reasonable one. A jury recently concluded that Guyger’s mistake was unreasonable, and found her guilty of murder, sentencing her to ten years imprisonment. She will be eligible for parole in five years.
Amber Guyger’s mistake defined her victim’s life as well. The victim, Botham Jean, was only 26 when Guyger killed him. He was well-educated, professional, law-abiding—and black. And now his life has ended. That, to me, is why murder is so heinous. You can’t undo it. You can’t bring back the life you cut short.
Guyger’s defense is the same one used 46 years ago in a murder trial of another Dallas police officer making a fatal (and fateful) mistake. On July 24, 1973, Darrell Cain grabbed 12-year-old Santos Rodriguez, and his 13-year-old brother, David, from their beds, in the middle of the night. Cain handcuffed both boys and put them in his patrol car, Santos in the front seat with Cain, and David in the back seat with another officer. Their alleged crime? Robbing a vending machine at a local gas station of eight dollars. Forensic evidence later proved the two boys were never at the scene of the crime.
To encourage Santos to confess, Cain took his .357 magnum handgun and placed the barrel against Santos’ head. Playing Russian roulette, Cain pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. When Santos still refused to confess, he pulled the trigger again. This time, the gun fired, killing Santos instantly. Cain immediately jumped out of the patrol car and shouted, “My God! My God! What have I done? I didn’t mean to do it!” Later, he would insist that he thought the gun was not loaded. At Cain’s trial, the jury determined that Cain’s mistake was unreasonable, found him guilty of murder, and sentenced him to only five years imprisonment, of which he served two and a half years.
Cain tried not to let his mistake define him. After leaving prison, he moved to West Texas, became an insurance adjuster, and had a family. But the family of young Santos Rodriguez? I cannot imagine how Cain’s mistake has affected Santos’ mother these many years. And I wonder how Santos’s brother has lived with the vivid memory of watching Cain execute his brother. Mother and son, together, had their lives defined by the mistake of Officer Cain.
My wife and I recently attended the Austin Film Festival. The closing film, Just Mercy,[i] is based on the true story of Bryan Stevenson, an African American lawyer, who fights for justice for prisoners on death row. One of his first cases is that of Walter McMillian. A jury had sentenced him to die for murdering an 18-year-old girl, despite overwhelming evidence of his innocence. Here is the trailer to Just Mercy:
I love the line, “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.” Darrell Cain tried to become more than his biggest mistake. I hope Amber Guyger can do the same.
See Just Mercy when you get the chance. The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and received an eight-minute standing ovation at its conclusion. While you’re waiting for the film to be released, please watch this Ted Talk by Bryan Stevenson, the lawyer whom the film is about:
But there is more to the Amber Guyger story.
The brother of Botham Jean, Amber Guyger’s victim, and the judge presiding at her trial, believed in both justice and mercy. In a moment of compassion, Brandt Jean, while testifying during the punishment phase of the trial about what the loss of his brother meant to him, Brandt paused and asked the judge if he could give a hug to the killer of his brother. When he asked a second time, and the judge relented. Brandt hugged Guyger for a long moment and told her he forgave her and wanted the best for her.
Judge Tammy Kemp watched Amber Guyger throughout the trial and noticed how she changed after the jury announced the guilty verdict. During the trial, Guyger remained stoic. But after the jury’s ruling, Kemp described Guyger as “a broken person.” After the proceedings, Judge Kemp first offered her condolences to the Jean family and then told Guyger, “Mr. Jean has forgiven you. Now I need you to forgive yourself so that you can live a purposeful life.” Then Guyger asked the judge if she could hug her. Judge Kemp, hesitated, but when asked again, Kemp opened her arms to Guyger. When Kemp learned that Guyger didn’t have a Bible, she gave her one of her own.
Some have criticized Judge Kemp for both the hug and the gift of the Bible. I have a hard time understanding that. I believe in justice. But I also believe in compassion. As the Reverend George A. Mason, senior pastor of the Wilshire Baptist Church, said, “Justice without mercy is heartless, but mercy without justice is thoughtless.”
In the past 50 years, many things have changed; but some remain the same. We still experience racism, hatred, and violence in our streets and even our homes. We still have police officers killing citizens. We still have citizen protests of those killings.
In a sad postscript to the events of the Guyger trial, another police officer, this time in Fort Worth, shot and killed a 26-year-old African American woman as she played video games in her home with her nephew. In connection with peace officers dealing with the public they serve, quoting Reverend Mason again, “Deadly force must be the last resort, instead of the first choice.
Balancing justice and mercy is hard. We consider it just when a murderer gets what he or she deserves – the death penalty. But one in nine people on death row is later determined to be innocent of their alleged crime. And every case is different. My sister-in-law recently reminded me of a horrible car crash that occurred to a family she knows at a location less than a half-mile from where she and my wife grew up. Chris Williams, a father of four, was driving his pregnant wife and three of their children down a road I have driven many times when a drunk driver, a 17-year-old, traveling at a speed estimated to be over 75 miles per hour, rammed into the Williams’ vehicle. The impact killed the wife, their unborn child, and two of their children. A third child was critically injured and would need years of physical therapy to recover from his injuries. The crash hurt Chris Williams, as well, but he would survive – at least physically.
The story of Chris Williams became a little-known movie entitled, Just Let Go.[ii] (No clips from the film are on YouTube, but you can watch it in its entirety on Amazon Prime.) The film shows the struggle Williams has over balancing the justice demanded by the death and injury of his family and showing mercy toward the young man who made a deadly mistake. If the court tries him as an adult, the result would most likely be 25 years to life imprisonment. If the court tries him as a juvenile, the likely outcome would be he serves three years in a juvenile facility, after which the court would expunge his record. Everyone around Williams argues that justice demands the young driver of the other car be tried as an adult. But something holds Williams back. With a twist at the end, both Williams and the young driver are able to move on from the terrible incident that brought them together. There is a strong faith element running through the film, but regardless of your religious beliefs, it is worth your time to watch.
Perhaps the best film of all time dealing with redemption is The Shawshank Redemption.[iii] It is the story of two prisoners, Andy and Red, who become friends while serving life sentences in the Shawshank prison. Andy is innocent of the murder the jury convicted him of. At one point, Andy points out, “The funny thing is, on the outside, I was an honest man, straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.” But Andy does not allow the mistakes of his jury and others to define him. He maintains hope for a better life and encourages Red to do the same.
In this clip from the film, we see how Red’s attitude changes over the years at his parole hearings:
Until Red met Andy, he had allowed a single mistake to define who he was. But grasping that hope instilled in him by Andy, Red determines to make a new start. Here is the closing scene from the movie:
all make mistakes, both big and small. Let’s hope our mistakes do not define
others. More importantly, let’s not let our mistakes define who we are.
[i] Just Mercy:
- Production Companies: Endeavor Content, MACRO, and Netter Productions
- Director: Destin Daniel Cretton
- Screenwriters: Destin Daniel Cretton and Andreew Lanham (based on the memoir by Bryan Stevenson)
- Starring: Brie Larson, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Foxx
- Release date: January 10, 2020
[ii] Just Let Go:
- Production Companies: Number 7 Entertainment and Propel Pictures
- Directors: Christopher S. Clark and Patrick Henry Parker
- Screenwriters: Christopher S. Clark, Vance Mellen, Patrick Henry Parker (based on the book by Chris Williams)
- Starring: Henry Ian Cusick and Brenda Vaccaro
- Release date: October 9, 2015
[iii] The Shawshank Redemption:
- Production Company: Castle Rock Entertainment
- Director: Frank Darabont
- Screenwriter: Frank Darabont (based on the short story by Stephen King)
- Starring: Tim Robbins, Morgan Freeman, and Bob Gunton
- Release date: October 14, 1994