Amber Guyger and the Legal System’s Uncomfortable Embrace

Lauren Rosewarne
5 min readOct 5, 2019
Source: Pool photo by Tom Fox

When Botham Jean was murdered on September 6, 2018, the story’s mark on my life had been low. Being in Australia at the time, the case fused with the procession of revolting tales of black lives stolen by police officers in the US, and the details — and the true heinousness of the case — had escaped me.

Living in the US at the moment, the trial successfully vied for just enough attention — amid all the talk of Trump and treason and treachery — to garner not only my awareness but fascination.

In brief, the story centres on a white police officer, Amber Guyger, returning home sober, after a 13-and-a-half-hour shift. Instead of going into her own downstairs apartment, Guyger “mistakenly” enters Botham Jean’s unlocked upstairs abode. Jean, a black man, an accountant, is inside eating ice cream. And Guyger shoots him dead, apparently under the impression that he’d intruded into her home.

Having been found guilty of murder, Guyger was sentenced on October 1, 2019 to ten years in prison, with eligibility for parole in five. A law enforcement officer receiving a) a guilty verdict, and b) a prison sentence, is a unique enough outcome, but the story boasts several other striking features. From Guyger’s deployment of Texas’s castle doctrine — i.e., that she was defending her castle even though she had trespassed into the castle of her victim — to claims that she was so fatally distracted by an exchange of erotic text messages, through to her perhaps unsurprising history of I’m-not-a-racist-but text messages.

But I’m most interested in the post-sentencing courtroom kumbaya.

When it was all over, once the sentence had been served, Botham Jean’s younger brother, Brandt, asked Judge Tammy Kemp, if he could hug Guyger. Permission was granted. Because why not let a victim of crime in close physical proximity to a perp? Why not give those cameras a decent dose of drama? And then Kemp, apparently, liked the idea so much that she too hugged Guyger. And then, for good measure, Kemp gave Guyger a bible because seemingly there hadn’t been enough theatre for one day.

In a violent culture, there’s no shortage of murder victims. (In fact, there’s just under 20,000 of them per year in the US). And in a Christian culture, seemingly there’s no shortage of mothers and fathers and siblings willing to forgive the murderers. In a culture that’s both very violent and very Christian, the murder/grief/forgiveness triumvirate feels very American. While for the Jean family and apparently for Judge Kemp too, faith played a key role in their responses, there are some other unique cultural factors underpinning the events of that Dallas courtroom.

We have lots of idioms about pain, about bitterness. A favourite is the one about drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. Anger and acrimony in this culture are regularly framed as base emotions; as expected, sure, but feelings that nonetheless need to be directed towards something better, something positive, something more affirming.

Rather than nursing our anger and feeding our upset, there’s a cultural expectation that we transition out of the negativity. This, partly, is because we think of feelings like fury as toxic and as liable to morph into dangerous responses like revenge and retaliation, but it’s also because we want people to recover. To get better, to get over it. To, ideally, move on. Not a bad yen on its own, but the speed in which we want grief and rage and wrath worked through — the swiftness in which we want people to just snap out of it — is testimony to our collective discomfort with darker sentiments.

We’re a culture that works very hard to keep the ill feelings at bay, and this has led to an embrace of pop-psychology. The drive to scamper towards closure — a spurious concept if ever there was one — is fuelled by a consumerist mentality: that if we just acquire the right tools — the therapy, the pills, the You Can Do It! literature — we too can overcome; that we can control our destiny. And whether moving on, whether forgiving is actually ever possible, there’s nonetheless an element of at least performing an attempt. That you’re rewarded in this culture for trying to be the “better person”.

Be it the Brandt/Guyger embrace, the Kemp/Guyger embrace, the bloody bequeathing of the bible, an event that should have been sober, sombre, was turned into a spectacle. The trial happened because a man was murdered. Botham Jean doesn’t get to wake up tomorrow morning because a woman who was either stupid, reckless, racist or probably all three, killed a man who posed no threat to her. And rather than allowing us to dwell on this, to mourn the fact that Guyger gets to kill a man and be out of prison all before she’s 40, rather than give this case the true solemnity it deserves, instead, there’s a rush to transition us out of our collective grief and outrage. To not dwell on the ugliness, to not linger in the true dreadfulness. Apparently a desperate hankering exists to find any kernels of good and hope amid this nightmare. To pretend that Jean didn’t die in vain but rather was somehow part of Guyger’s story of redemption.

It’s hard for me to criticize the Jean family — I, fortunately, don’t know what it’s like to lose a family member to violent crime. Equally, I don’t know what it’s like to have God as an influential figure in my life. The Jeans also reside in the same culture that couples graciousness with forgiveness; that demands people recover with haste, with hardiness; that insists that black people stifle their fury. But I feel much less equivocation about judging Kemp. Embracing a murderer, gifting her a bloody bible, aligns Kemp’s actions with those celebrity-seeking robed fools who display a preoccupation with carving out a reality TV persona rather than doing their job and just upholding the law.

I imagine I’m partly to blame here. A heavy diet of crime novels and true crime media has meant I’m probably the ideal audience for such a courtroom display. I’m the one who’s been primed for the smoking guns and the surprise witnesses and the showboat judge. Maybe a histrionic embrace of the sobbing white murderer is part of this. While I like to think of myself as able to distinguish entertainment from true justice, maybe such skills are wasted in this courtroom culture.

Lauren Rosewarne is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne and currently a Visiting Professor at Wesleyan University, USA. Visit her at: www.laurenrosewarne.com.

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