When a Judge Gives a Murderer a Bible
Forgiveness is for the family, not an impartial magistrate of the court
18-year-old Brandt Jean stunned the world yesterday when he asked Judge Kemp if he could hug his brother’s killer.
“I love you just like anyone else. I’m not going to say I hope you rot and die, just like my brother did. … I personally want the best for you.”¹
September 6, 2018: Amber Guyger had been a Dallas police officer for four years. She inexplicably entered the wrong apartment, mistaking it for hers and mistaking the rightful occupant for a burglar. That occupant was an unarmed man eating ice cream. She shot Botham Jean to death.
A neighbor who rushed to film the incident after hearing two gunshots says her seven minutes of footage contradicts Guyger’s account. The neighbor received death threats after posting the video and was ultimately fired from her job at a pharmaceutical company after anonymous calls to her work “falsely reported that she was a ‘radical,’ ‘anti-police’ and ‘a black extremist.’”²
The highly publicized case prompted numerous compare/contrast exercises that exposed the ingrained racial hypocrisy in our culture and the criminal justice system specifically. Namely, what if a black man had entered an unarmed white woman’s apartment and shot her to death?
The public saga of police protectionism and racial inequity that plagued the Guyger investigation morphed into a blurred line between church and state at the sentencing after the murder trial found her guilty.
Resisting the temptation to pontificate from the bench must be difficult for judges. But when they do indulge their human impulses it is usually to add a moral decree to the judicial sentencing, not to hug the defendant and promise to bring her a Bible.
State District Judge Tammy Kemp of Dallas, Texas stunned the courtroom and the internet by also hugging convicted murderer Amber Guyger after sentencing her to ten years in prison.
It’s beautiful that the family was able to speak their hearts and share their faith in the way that they chose. The victim impact statements are incorporated into the proceedings to let victims express themselves in whatever way they choose.
It is NOT appropriate, however, for a judge to hug a defendant, have a conversation about religion while embracing, tell her to forgive herself and read the Bible, give the defendant a Bible and then thank the victim’s family for “modeling Christ”.
“You can have mine. I have three or four more at home. This is the one I use every day. This is your job for the next month. It says right here. John 3:16. And this is where you start. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life…’”³
Tammy Kemp is a Christian woman. Her faith is beautiful and offers the gift and the power of redemption. But sharing it in this context violates our constitution. And it violates her duty to uphold the independence of the judiciary and her impartiality as a judge.⁴
“You just need a tiny mustard seed of faith. You start with this.”⁵
State District Judge Kemp is an officer of the court. She was not elected to counsel the fallen faithful or to shepherd prodigal murderers back to the flock.
“You haven’t done so much that you can’t be forgiven. You did something bad in one moment in time. What you do now matters,” Judge Kemp told Guyger after the two embraced.⁶
These are all beautifully Christian petitions. Tammy Kemp can share her entreaties for Amber Guyger with her pastor, her congregation, her friends and family, and in the purest depths of her prayers.
But the separation of church and state is indisputable. And it includes the courtroom, Judge Kemp. We cannot discriminate against people in the courtroom based on our faith. But neither can we proselytize with it.
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