Compassion in the Courtroom

A display of Christlike love sparks nationwide debate

Judge Tammy Kemp hadn’t planned to do any of it. The gavel had dropped. The trial was over. But Amber Guyger had some deep questions for which Kemp had answers. After a brief exchange between judge and convict, Kemp went to her chambers and retrieved her personal Bible for Guyger to keep.

And in those moments last October, following the sentencing of the former Dallas police officer for murder, Kemp was momentarily taken aback by something Guyger asked.

“She requested of me a hug,” Kemp told NBC 5 Dallas-Fort Worth/KXAS, a local news station. “And I’m embarrassed to say I didn’t say ‘yes’ right away. She asked me a second time, and between those asks, I was reminded about my responsibility to show love and compassion. … I was reminded also about my responsibility as to how I conduct myself as a judge. ‘What does the Lord require of you? To do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly’ (Cf. Micah 6:8). So, of course I said, ‘Yes, I’ll give you a hug.’”

Guyger had been convicted the previous day of killing Botham Jean, an innocent, unarmed man whom she shot dead in his apartment on Sept. 6, 2018. She had gone to the wrong floor of her apartment complex after a double shift and mistaken his apartment for hers. Emotions had run high during the sentencing phase of the trial as the victim’s brother, Brandt Jean, had shocked the courtroom by offering Guyger forgiveness and asking Kemp’s permission to give her a hug. 

As the sentencing concluded, Kemp left the bench and offered her condolences to the Jean family before approaching Guyger. She planned to share what she typically shares with a convicted defendant: “When you get to prison, don’t let this be the end of your story. When you come out, let’s do something purposeful.” 

But what she said to Guyger was entirely different. 

Recalling for CNN the exchange of words that went viral, Kemp said: “I said to her, ‘Miss Guyger, Mr. Jean has forgiven you. Please forgive yourself so that you can live a purposeful life.’ And she asked me, ‘Do you think my life can still have a purpose?’ I said, ‘I know it can.’ And she said, ‘Well I don’t even have a Bible. … I don’t know where to begin.’ And that’s when I went and retrieved my Bible and gave it to her.”

Kemp directed her to John 3:16 and encouraged her to read the gospels. 

In the days following the trial and sentencing, a nationwide debate ensued about the limits of compassion.

According to The New York Times, “Some praised it as a rare and much-needed moment of humanity; others criticized it as potentially unconstitutional and wondered whether a black defendant would receive similar attention in the criminal justice system.”

However, as Kemp recalled in the NBC interview, “You all watched her from the back for eight days. I watched her from the front, and there was a dramatic change in the person who came in on Sept. 23 versus the person who was sentenced on Oct. 1.

“Had you witnessed the person who was hurting as Miss Guyger was, I don’t know a person who would have denied her that human contact.”

Kemp, a Christian who for more than 25 years has been an active member of Concord Church in Dallas, said she was surprised that so many viewed her interaction with Guyger as controversial.

“We deal with such atrocities here,” she said. “Sometimes we forget that the people are human.”

Though many have criticized Kemp’s emotion and compassion, she says, “It would frighten me if we did have a judge that lacked emotion.”

The day after the trial ended, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, an atheist group, filed a complaint with the State Commission on Judicial Conduct.

“We write to raise your awareness of Judge Kemp’s actions at the close of the trial,” the complaint reads. “These proselytizing actions overstepped judicial authority, were inappropriate and were unconstitutional.”

The complaint alleges that Kemp’s compassion “crossed the line into coercion.”

A week later, the FFRF followed up with the SCJC to clarify the central issue of their complaint: “Our request for a formal ethics investigation rests solely on Judge Kemp’s use of a state judicial power to promote her personal religion.” 

As of press time, the SCJC had not responded to the complaint. 

Amid the controversy, one thing is clear: Kemp had an answer for the reason for her hope—Jesus Christ (see 1 Peter 3:15).

Asked by KXAS if she would do it all over again, Judge Kemp also had an answer.

“Yes. My responsibility is ‘to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly.’ And Miss Guyger has a 10-year sentence. She’ll be eligible for parole in five years. When she walks out of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, I want her to enter into this world with a purpose to make an impact because I think she could have an amazing statement because she took from this earth an amazing person. But as I told his parents, ‘Your son had done everything that the Lord required and he’s absent in the body, but he’s present with the Lord.’ And the rest of us should live in a manner that we can join him. That extends to Amber Guyger as well.

“I just hope that the Jean family believes that they received justice and that Miss Guyger feels that she was treated justly.” 

Photo: AP