On Wednesday, November 20, 2019, Jackson Walker partner Paul Watler moderated a panel discussion on the trial of Dallas police officer Amber Guyger on charges of murdering Botham Jean in his own apartment.
Hosted by the Dallas Bar Association, the CLE panel featured firsthand experiences from those who covered the trial, including:
- WFAA investigative reporter Tanya Eiserer served as studio anchor for daily broadcast coverage of the murder trial.
- The Dallas Morning News reporter Jennifer Emily hosted the podcast series of special reports entitled “The Death of Botham Jean: Amber Guyger on Trial.”
- Tom Fox is a photojournalist with The Dallas Morning News who captured unforgettable photographs from inside the courtroom.
- Rebecca Lopez is a senior crime and justice reporter at WFAA who reported on the trial from the courthouse.
- Barry Sorrels is a Dallas criminal defense attorney who provided expert legal commentary for WFAA during the trial.
To open the panel, Paul said of the trial coverage: “It was the finest hour for our local news media, and we have a chance today to hear from them directly about their experiences. They served as the eyes and ears of the city of Dallas—and, really, the world—as this case unfolded here in Dallas County. It was these journalists and their news organizations that took a worldwide audience inside the courtroom for coverage of the trial.”
“They served as the eyes and ears of the city of Dallas—and, really, the world—as this case unfolded here in Dallas County.”
During the discussion, the panel spoke about their role in helping pull the audience inside the courtroom, the “media hysteria” and chaos surrounding the trial, the First Amendment right of access to criminal trials, the prevalence of rumors and social media as events unfolded, and key moments that resonate with them.
Chronicling the Discussion
As the first panelist to speak about her experience anchoring the WFAA daily broadcast, Tanya noted:
“We were able to help walk people through what was happening as it was happening. Anytime there was sound in that courtroom, people didn’t want to hear us – even if it was just swearing-in witnesses. Anytime there was a break or a sidebar, we would jump in and explain what was happening and why it was happening.”
When asked what it was like to step into the world of journalism as a lawyer, Barry responded:
“I’ve spent my entire adult life as a criminal lawyer, and what I’ve been studying more than anything else and trying to understand is what juries think. I believe after years and years of living in the courtroom that I have a feel for what matters to juries. I feel like not only is it fun, but I get to talk about something that I feel like I know what I’m talking about. My role was not to be an advocate, not to give inside information, but to explain the dynamics of what was happening, what the prosecution was up to in the courtroom, and what the defense was trying to do and why.”
Regarding the chaos surrounding covering the Guyger trial, Rebecca said:
“I’ve never seen anything like it, and I’ve covered multiple trials. I’ve been a journalist for 32 years covering huge cases in various cities, but this by far was probably the case that got the most attention. There were media from all over the world. It was chaos sometimes. There were so many people there. You had Botham Jean’s family, then you had community activists who were very loud and some wanting to get on television and make their points, and you had Amber Guyger’s family. So you had all these dynamics coming together—all these people coming together—in one little space. It was probably one of the most incredible trials that I’ve ever covered.”
Having covered the trial from the beginning both in the courtroom and via The Dallas Morning News’ podcast series, Jennifer Emily shared insights about combining her written work with hosting the podcast:
“As we all know from the jury, the most important thing happening comes from the witness stand, but I like to watch the whole courtroom from 180 degrees. What are the families doing? What are the attorneys doing? What is the jury doing? I would take notes and write what various people were doing at the time testimony was going on. During breaks, I would grab my phone and send what was important that wasn’t in the story or what you didn’t see on TV. At the end of the day, I would go back to the newsroom and work a little bit on the story, write the script for the podcast, which had to be edited and approved. We’d record the podcast, which had to be edited and approved. And so, my days were about 16 hours long for about a two-week period during the trial. We’d never done a daily podcast like that before. This just came about because so many people were watching this case, and we thought there might be an audience, and there was an audience. So it was very interesting to see, combining the written work with the audio component.”
“One of the biggest issues that we had covering the Amber Guyger/Botham Jean case was rumors and social media,” Rebecca added. “As journalists, it was incumbent upon us to get out there and try to correct the record and tell the truth. When the case first happened, there were narratives being put out that were false, and we would do stories to balance what was actually happening to get the truth out there. Sometimes we got criticized for doing that.”
“One of the most frustrating things—and I’m sure Jen and Rebecca feel the same way—is national media were putting out a lot of wrong information and were framing stuff incorrectly,” Tanya said. “People need to be more responsible. When you have people putting out false information and you know they’ve put out false information, you need to think long and hard before you run off with what they’re saying. Our jobs as journalists is to give true information. So that, for me, was a lot of the frustration in this case.”
Jennifer also added: “All along in this case, social media and the internet really contributed to a lot of incorrect information. The reason there was so much interest in this case is we’ve never seen anything like it, and hopefully we never will again.”
On capturing the photographs, Tom said: “These are the two photos that kind of encapsulate the trial. It was inverted on the left in which Botham’s mother just kind of threw back her arms when the jury finally left, she could finally say something and kind of exalted a little bit.” Regarding the image to the right, he noted: “This is the final chapter of the case, and I think it brings it all together. I think it’s going to be the one thing I remember from it all. When he asked to come off the witness stand and give her a hug, I quickly in my mind tried to picture where this is going to happen and where I needed to stand to get the picture. I caught them embracing in the middle of the courtroom and it lasted a good minute, so I had time to compose and make a really indelible image. That’s what my job is to do—to capture that moment that will be sustained or remembered. I can’t remember the last time I actually was overcome with emotion while trying to do my job.”
As the panel came to a close, Barry added: “In conclusion, the media covering this case was fantastic – and the judge. I think this was a showcase trial. There’s no funny business, everybody knew what they were doing, everybody was highly skilled, and we should all be very proud of what we demonstrated to the world as far as how our justice system in this community works.”
To view D Magazine’s coverage of the panel, view “Dallas Journalists Who Covered Amber Guyger Trial Share Insights.”
Dallas partner Paul C. Watler is widely recognized for First Amendment, media law, and “Bet-the-Company” commercial cases. Paul’s court victories range from opening up Love Field in Dallas for long-haul airline service to winning two of the most frequently cited Texas Supreme Court opinions on media libel law.
Leading up to the panel, Paul provided insights on the impact of the Dallas news media in covering the trial in his article “Dallas Media Shines in Coverage of Amber Guyger Murder Trial.”