Dallas – Judge Tammy Kemp was clad in black robes and seated at the bench in her Dallas courtroom when she reached for a tissue and wiped the tears from her eyes.
It was the coda to an intense, closely watched trial. The scene unfolding in front of Kemp would move her to do something she’d never before done in her career on the court – a decision that later provoked both outrage and applause.
Kemp watched last week as the brother of Botham Jean, an unarmed black man shot to death inside his own apartment, crossed the room to hug Amber Guyger, the white ex-cop convicted of murder in the case. Minutes later, after she dismissed the jury, Kemp hugged members of the Jean family. She then approached Guyger and, eventually, gave her a Bible and embraced her.
Both moments went viral, and Kemp’s highly unusual act elicited a split response. Some praised it as a rare moment of compassion in a cold criminal justice system, while others derided it as a grave ethical breach and yet another example of how white defendants are treated better than defendants of colour.
On Monday, in her first interview since the trial ended, Kemp – a black former prosecutor – defended herself and said she didn’t know why people were upset. Guyger asked her for the hug, she said. Kemp hesitated, then leaned in and put her arms around Guyger, who had just been sentenced to 10 years in prison.
"Following my own convictions, I could not refuse that woman a hug. I would not," Kemp told The Associated Press. "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."
Kemp saw a woman changed, she told the AP, someone who might seek God’s forgiveness if she knew where to start, if she had a Bible of her own.
"She asked me if I thought that God could forgive her and I said, ‘Yes, God can forgive you and has,’ " Kemp said. "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. Because she still has a lot of life ahead of her following her sentence and I would hope that she could live it purposefully."
The judge argued that her actions were appropriate because they took place after the trial and were not part of the official record. But Kemp’s reasoning ignores a crucial point, said South Texas College of Law professor Kenneth Williams: the trial might not actually be over.
It’s possible Guyger could appeal the decision and the case could wind up back in front of Kemp, who may then have to recuse herself, Williams said.
"There would certainly be questions about whether she’s neutral and impartial," he told The Washington Post. "As a judge, I don’t think you’d want to do anything to indicate that you might favor or oppose any parties in the case. I believe that by counseling Ms. Guyger, she’s given that impression."
"That’s inappropriate; that’s not a judge’s role," Williams continued. "She should have said no. It’s just not routine, this is a total aberration. In 30 years, I’ve never seen anything like it."
Kemp did not respond to interview requests from The Post, but she told the AP this was the first time she has acknowledged her Christianity to a defendant or given one a Bible.
"You can have mine," Kemp told Guyger, handing her the book. "I’ve got three or four more at home. This is the one I use every day."
"You haven’t done so much that you can’t be forgiven," the judge added, according to a reporter in the room. "You did something bad in one moment in time. What you do now matters."
Kemp flipped to a page in the New Testament – John 3:16, a verse highlighting God’s love – and said, "This is where you start." She picked that passage, she told the AP, so Guyger "could recognize that, even given the fact that she murdered someone, God still loves her."
The exchange led the Freedom From Religion Foundation, which regularly files lawsuits defending the separation of church and state, to log a complaint with the Texas Commission on Judicial Conduct.
Kemp, the group wrote, was "proselytizing in her official capacity" and her actions "overstepped judicial authority, were inappropriate and were unconstitutional."
"It is perfectly acceptable for private citizens to express their religious beliefs in court, but the rules are different for those acting in a governmental role . . . it violates a vital constitutional principle for a sitting judge to promote personal religious beliefs while acting in her official capacity," the complaint read.
Others argued that the dramatic courtroom encounter took focus off the Jean family and made Guyger a sympathetic figure.
"It definitely was a boon to Ms. Guyger," Williams said.
And it further exacerbates the criminal justice system’s racial divide, where leniency is more often afforded to white defendants.
"The issue is not so much that compassion was extended to Amber Guyger," Jemar Tisby, an African American historian and writer, said in an interview with NPR. "It’s that compassion is often withheld from black people in similar situations."
Kemp, a Democrat, first ran for judge in 2014 – a decision she made after she fasted and prayed, the AP reported. A graduate of the University of Oklahoma’s law school, she worked in the Dallas County district attorney’s office for about 15 years before launching her campaign.
She soundly defeated the Democratic incumbent in the primary and ran unopposed in the general election. Four years later, she won reelection, earning an endorsement from the editorial board of the Dallas Morning News, which praised her management of court business. Kemp hasn’t yet said whether she plans to seek a third term.
The Washington Post