DALLAS - The Dallas County judge blasted for hugging convicted murderer Amber Guyger and giving the former police officer her own personal Bible at Guyger’s sentencing last week is now defending her actions.
District Judge Tammy Kemp has come under fire for her treatment of Guyger, both with members of the public and with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which has filed a complaint with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct accusing Kemp, in part, of “inappropriately proselytizing to the defendant.”
Guyger was convicted of murder last week in the Sept. 6, 2018, slaying of her neighbor, Botham Jean, as he sat in his apartment, eating ice cream and watching TV. Guyger, then an off-duty Dallas patrol officer who lived in the apartment below Jean’s, testified she mistakenly went to the wrong floor and apartment.
She shot Jean, a 26-year-old accountant and avid church singer, because she believed he was an intruder in her home, Guyger testified.
The controversial hug between judge and defendant took place Wednesday after Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison for Jean’s murder.
NBC Dallas-Fort Worth reported that Kemp, in her first interview since the trial and sentencing, said she felt her actions were appropriate in the situation because the trial was officially over.
The trial, particularly the sentencing phase, was racially charged and highly emotional. Guyger was seen by many as another white police officer killing an unarmed black man.
Kemp, like Jean, is black.
In one of the most remarkable moments of the entire process, Jean’s 18-year-old brother, Brandt Jean, forgave his brother’s killer during his victim impact statement.
“If you truly are sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you,” a tearful Brandt Jean told Guyger. “I know if you go to God and ask him, he will forgive you.”
The teen begged Kemp to allow him to give Guyger a hug.
After a moment, Kemp agreed and the pair embraced, weeping, in a moment that had most observers in the courtroom, including Kemp, sobbing or wiping away tears.
Watch Brandt Jean and Amber Guyger's interaction below.
Kemp told The Associated Press that Guyger told her after the court proceedings were over that she did not know how to begin seeking God’s forgiveness.
“She asked me if I thought that God could forgive her, and I said, ‘Yes, God can forgive you and has,’” the judge told the AP.
“If she wanted to start with the Bible, I didn’t want her to go back to the jail and to sink into doubt and self-pity and become bitter,” Kemp said. “Because she still has a lot of life ahead of her following her sentence, and I would hope that she could live it purposefully.”
Critics of Kemp’s actions argued that it was unethical for her to embrace a defendant and give her the Bible. In video of the encounter, Kemp can also be heard counseling Guyger on which passages in the Bible to focus on.
“You can have (my Bible). I have three or four more at home,” Kemp told Guyger, according to multiple videos of the encounter. “This is the one I use every day. “This is your job for the next month. Right here. John: 3:16. And this is where you start.”
Kemp then read the cited passage to Guyger: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
After a few more moments of counseling from Kemp, Guyger hugged the judge and Kemp reciprocated the hug.
“I’m surprised that people think the hug was somehow detrimental,” Kemp said, according to NBC DFW. “Had you witnessed a person who was hurting as Ms. Guyger was, I don’t know a person who would have denied her that human contact.”
Annie Laurie Gaylor and Dan Barker, co-presidents of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, wrote in a letter to the judicial commission that they, too, believe the criminal justice system needs more compassion from judges and prosecutors.
“But here, compassion crossed the line into coercion,” the letter reads. “And there can be few relationships more coercive than a sentencing judge in a criminal trial and a citizen accused and convicted of a crime.”
Gaylor and Barker noted in a news release that Kemp “generally handled a difficult and widely publicized trial with grace and aplomb.” Her actions after the trial ended were a serious First Amendment violation, the pair said.
Read the Freedom From Religion Foundation's letter below.
Kemp described herself as a very strict judge but admitted that she will “try to save every person that I can save.”
“The justice system isn’t all just black and white,” Kemp said. “If it were, we wouldn’t need judges. We could use computers. We could input, ‘This crime has happened, this is the person who did it,’ and we could mete out the punishment.”
Addressing Brandt Jean’s gesture toward his brother’s killer, Kemp said the embrace “did radiate love throughout the room.”
“There was, like, a huge release of emotion and tension, and there was a level of hope. It was absolutely amazing to see this young man,” the judge told NBC DFW.
Tears rolled down the judge’s face as she recalled hugging Guyger and counseling her on how to redeem herself while behind bars. She said Guyger asked twice if she could hug Kemp as she had Brandt Jean.
“Following my own convictions, I could not refuse that woman a hug. I would not,” Kemp told the news station. “And I don't understand the anger. And I guess I could say if you profess religious beliefs and you are going to follow them, I would hope that they not be situational and limited to one race only.”
Watch part of Kemp's interview with NBC DFW below.
Some critics argued that Kemp’s appearance of forgiving Guyger for the murder of a black man took the focus off justified anger about racial violence, the AP reported.
“How Botham Jean’s brother chooses to grieve is his business. He’s entitled to that,” Jemele Hill, a writer for The Atlantic, tweeted Wednesday. “But this judge choosing to hug this woman is unacceptable. Keep in mind this convicted murderer is the same one who laughed about (the Rev. Dr.) Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and killing ppl (people) on sight.”
How Botham Jean’s brother chooses to grieve is his business. He’s entitled to that. But this judge choosing to hug this woman is unacceptable. Keep in mind this convicted murderer is the same one who laughed about Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination, and killing ppl on sight. https://t.co/Nu5QGOIR1K— Jemele Hill (@jemelehill) October 2, 2019
Prosecutors, during the penalty phase of Guyger’s trial, introduced text messages and memes Guyger shared on social media that showed she may have been racially biased when she fired at Jean the night he was killed.
One exchange was from January 2018, as Guyger and colleagues worked Dallas’ Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, according to The Dallas Morning News.
“When does this end?” an unidentified officer texted to Guyger.
“When MLK is dead … oh, wait,” Guyger replied.
A March 9, 2018, text exchange between Guyger and her former partner and lover, Martin Rivera, was also highlighted as racist. Testimony during the trial showed that Guyger and Rivera had been a sexual relationship, which prosecutors argued Guyger distracted when she arrived at what she thought was her apartment the night she shot Botham Jean.
Guyger was on the phone with Rivera as she parked -- on the wrong level -- at the South Side Flats that night. Less than four minutes after she ended that call, Jean was lying on his living room floor, dying.
In his March 2018 text exchange with Guyger, Rivera stated: “Damn, I was at this area with five different black officers! Not racist, but damn.”
“Not racist, but just have a different way of working and it shows,” Guyger responded.
Prosecutors showed a couple of images from Guyger's Pinterest account. Some screenshots: pic.twitter.com/uPmmd7idUR— Dana Branham (@danabranham) October 1, 2019
The AP reported last week that Kemp’s critics argued white America has come to expect black people to forgive the violence they are subjected to and to not express their anger about the racism they face.
“Very few communities in our nation have had to suffer as much as black people, who have also been robbed of the opportunity to emote from that experience,” the Rev. Michael Waters, pastor of Joy Tabernacle African Methodist Episcopal Church in Dallas, told the AP.
Waters has been a vocal advocate for police reform in the city.
“It’s about removing from black people the agency of their anger, suggesting that we don’t have a right to righteous indignation, that it is somehow unacceptable for Christian black people to tap into their frustration at a death-dealing system that has caused them to bury generations of their sons and daughters,” Waters told the news agency. “I think that’s sinful.”
The Rev. Sharon Risher, whose mother, Ethel Lee Lance, was one of nine people killed by white supremacist Dylann Roof in the June 2015 massacre at Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, was not among the victims’ relatives who expressed their forgiveness of Roof within days of the shooting.
“It always seems like black people are given that heavy task of being able to forgive,” Risher told the AP following Guyger’s sentencing.
Activists praised Guyger’s guilty verdict, a rarity among white police officers accused of killing black people, but decried the light sentence she received. She faced up to life in prison for murder.
Two jurors who spoke to ABC News Friday said they struggled to come up with a sentence to fit Guyger’s crime. Prosecutors had asked that they sentence the former officer to at least 28 years, a year for every year Botham Jean would have been alive at the time of the sentencing.
His birthday was the Sunday before Guyger was found guilty of killing him.
All 12 jurors agreed within about five minutes of deliberation during the guilt phase that Guyger was guilty of murder, a male juror, identified as Juror 21, told the network.
“She said before she even went inside, she made up her mind outside the door that she was going to kill the threat,” Juror 21 told ABC News.
Guyger testified during her trial that she heard “loud shuffling” before going into Jean’s apartment, believing it was her own. She admitted during cross-examination that she went in intending to kill the person she believed was burglarizing her home.
Jurors were split on the sentence at first, however, ABC News reported.
“There were a few of us crying, and I really started crying, and I was listening to some people say they agreed with 28 (years),” Juror 21 said. “I asked for a lighter sentence.”
“I’m a be honest and true. I was, like, ‘I can’t give her 28 years,’” Juror 34, a black woman, told ABC News.
Both jurors told the network that, though no one could know what Botham Jean, known to family and friends as “Bo,” would want, they believed he would have, like his brother, leaned toward forgiveness.
The female juror said she felt the Guyger case was set apart from other cases in which white police officers killed unarmed black citizens.
“You can’t compare this case to any of those other officers killing unarmed black men,” the woman told ABC News. “Those officers that kill unarmed black men, when they got out, they went back to living their lives.
“Amber Guyger, ever since she killed that man, she has not been the same. She showed remorse in that she’s going to have to deal with that for the rest of her life.”
Watch part of the jurors' interview with ABC News below.
Kemp told NBC DFW that Guyger’s sentencing was the first time she’d acknowledged her Christian faith to a defendant. She said she saw a marked change in Guyger’s demeanor as the trial and sentencing phase progressed.
“What I wanted to say to her was, ‘Please forgive yourself,’” Kemp told the NBC affiliate’s reporter. “You all watched her from the back for eight days. I watched her from the front. And there was a dramatic change.”
Kemp reiterated her belief that her actions were not improper because they were not part of the official trial record.
“I didn’t do that from the bench," Kemp said, according to NBC DFW. “I came down to extend my condolences to the Jean family and to encourage Ms. Guyger, because she has a lot of life to live.”