When Amber Guyger — the former Dallas police officer found guilty of the murder of Botham Jean — was sentenced to 10 years in prison, the sentencing sparked discussion and controversy as many believed the length of the punishment was too lenient. But for the people who determine sentencing lengths, the matter isn’t always clear-cut.
While the range of a possible sentence is established by statutes depending on the type of crime committed, the exact length is up to the judge or jury.
For example, a Class A misdemeanor — which includes charges such as interfering with a 911 call, resisting arrest and unlawfully carrying a weapon — can be punished by a maximum of one year in jail and a fine of up to $4,000, or up to two years of probation.
On the other hand, people found guilty of first degree felony charges — such as aggravated kidnapping, aggravated sexual assault against a child or solicitation of capital murder — can be sentenced from anywhere from five to 99 years in prison.
And when making the determination of just how long a sentence should last, there are several factors to consider, Lamar County Court at Law Judge Bill Harris said.
“We look at the details of the case, of course, but we also look at the person’s life and circumstances,” he said.
Harris looks at employment history, any volunteer work the defendant does or organizations they participate in. Simply put, he tries to look at what the defendant’s role and impact in the community is.
One of the most important factors in coming to a sentence length, Harris said, is prior criminal history.
“One shoplifting charge from 20 years ago means much less than if the person has four or five serious felonies in the past 10 years,” Harris said. “Actions speak louder than words, and if I can see that this person isn’t repeatedly breaking the law, I might be more on the lenient side.”
Another factor Harris weighs when considering cases is age, he said. For example, if he’s hearing a case of drug use, he’s more likely to give a sentencing to probation and rehabilitation if they’re younger.
Sometimes, looking at the extraneous details leads to a harsher sentencing instead of a lighter one, Harris said. This was the case a few years ago when Harris said he sentenced a defendant to life in prison for drug use with intent to deliver.
“Even though the base crime didn’t necessarily warrant it, I looked at his history of offenses and his behavior over the last several years,” Harris said. “He had four or five state convictions, he had multiple federal convictions, and at that point, what’s left for me to do?”
In Guyger’s trial, jurors settled on a sentence of a decade in prison, though the maximum sentence possible was 99 years, and many believed the sentence should be set at 28 years, according to The Dallas Morning News, a symbolic sentencing length since that’s how old Jean would have turned last month.
Jurors said Guyger’s show of remorse is the key reason for a lighter sentence, which Harris said is also a factor he looks for.
“Once the crime has been committed, how do they feel about it?” he said.
In most states, Harris said, the jury determines guilt or innocence and the judge determines the length of a sentence. However, defendants in Texas can choose whether they want the jury or judge to set the punishment.
In Lamar County, most defendants choose to have the jury set the punishment, Harris said. And such was the case in Guyger’s trial.
Though Harris said he sees more sentencings decided by the jury, local defense attorney Barney Sawyer said he more often turns to the judge to set the punishment.
“With a jury, you have no idea what they’re going to do, so there’s always some risk to that and overall I do think juries are more prone to give more time,” Sawyer said. “But with a judge, you can look at their history and the issues they’re especially hard on. If one judge is especially hard on a certain crime, and that’s who you’re defending, you want the jury.”