Amber Guyger’s judge gave her a Bible and hugged her. Why some say she shouldn’t have.

An organization that fights for the separation of church and state has filed a complaint that a judge overstepped her authority when she prayed with and gave a Bible to Amber Guyger.

Guyger, a former Dallas police officer, was convicted of the murder of Botham Jean on Tuesday. On Wednesday, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Minutes after the sentence was announced, State District Judge Tammy Kemp hugged Guyger and gave her a Bible.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation sent the complaint letter Wednesday to the State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The organization says Kemp gifted a Christian Bible to Guyger and instructed her on how to read it and which passages to pay attention to.

The letter said Kemp’s actions were “inappropriate,” “overstepped judicial authority” and “unconstitutional.” Links to video showing the encounter were also included.

Calls seeking comment from Kemp’s office and from the state’s judicial conduct commission were not immediately returned.

Andrew Seidel, a constitutional attorney with the Freedom From Religion Foundation, said they do not contact the people about whom they complain to judicial boards because of the adversarial nature of the communication.

“It’s very clear what happened and there’s no doubt that what the judge did crossed the line,” Seidel said. “This was always going to go to the commission.”

Kemp and Guyger’s hug came moments after the victim’s 18-year-old brother, Brandt Jean, asked to hug Guyger following a victim’s impact statement where he said he forgave Guyger and did not want to see her go to prison.

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Judge Kemp left the courtroom, then returned with a Bible, walked over to Guyger and proceeded to preach, the letter says.

“You can have [my Bible],” Kemp said, according to the letter. “I have three or four more at home. This is the one I use every day. [inaudible] This is your job for the next month. You read right here: John 3:16. And this is where you start, ‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whosoever…’ You stop at ‘whosoever’ and say, ‘Amber, [inaudible] You start with the Gospels. Then [inaudible]. You read this whole book of John.”

Judge Kemp then hugged Guyger and said to her, according to the letter:

“It’s not because I’m good. It’s because I believe in Christ. I’m not so good. You haven’t done as much as you think you have, and you can be forgiven. You did something bad in one moment in time. What you do now matters.”

Seidel said the foundation expects the commission to investigate and obtain assurances that this type of behavior will not happen again and that Kemp will recognize her behavior was out of bounds.

Seidel, and the letter, states that during the rest of the trial, Kemp did an excellent job. But during this final part of the trial, Kemp lost her impartiality, the letter indicated. There is no reason that Kemp cannot act outside of the commission’s directives and take it upon herself to to say that what she did was wrong, Seidel said.

“It also indicates that if you come before this judge in the future, you can hammer home on her Christian beliefs,”” Seidel said. “This shows that the judge is not impartial and can be swayed by such an argument. She has shown that she is partial to notions of Christian reform and forgiveness.”

Other reaction

Some legal experts and commentators on social media agreed the hug was not suitable to the situation.

Kemp’s actions call into question her impartiality in the case, said Kenneth Williams, a criminal law professor at South Texas College of Law Houston.

If Guyger were to appeal her case, Kemp may not be able to oversee the new trial because some might interpret her move as sympathy toward Guyger, he said.

“I’ve never seen anything like that after 30 years,” he said.

Kemp giving Guyger a Bible also subverts separation of church and state, he said, because it is not a judge’s role to promote religion.

“It’s kind of bizarre,” Williams said. “I thought the judge had conducted the trial very well, so I was kind of surprised and taken aback by some of the things that happened.”

On social media, some said the hug and Kemp giving Guyger a Bible was inappropriate. Touré, a former co-host of The Cycle of MSNBC, tweeted, “Amber Guyger is a racist convicted murderer. Why does she get a sweet, caring hug from the judge? Because she was a cop? Because she’s a white woman (which means she deserves sympathy)? Name the last Black man you saw hugged by the judge after a murder conviction.”

Adam Serwer, writer for the Atlantic, argued that black people are expected to be compassionate while rarely seeing the same mercy from the criminal justice system.

“We would be living in a very different world if many of the people who exult in black displays of forgiveness reciprocated that grace and mercy but that’s not reflected at all in our criminal justice policy, and it makes you question what they really find compelling about it,” his tweet said.

However, many applauded Kemp’s actions in the courtroom.

The Dallas Police Department tweeted that Brandt Jean’s hug and “Judge Kemp’s gift of her bible to Amber represent a spirit of forgiveness, faith and trust.”

“It’s just her Christian nature,” former Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins told the Associated Press.

Watkins was once Kemp’s boss and in 2006 became the first black elected district attorney in Texas history. Kemp, he said, would pray when their office tackled complex cases.

“You’re having people of color that have the opportunity to make judges now,” Watkins said. “Their life experience and their religious points of view are different than what we’ve seen in the past. That’s just the evolution of our judicial system.”

Prosecutors said that Guyger believed Jean was an intruder in her apartment when she shot him after going to the wrong address. Guyger’s apartment was one floor below Jean’s at an apartment complex near downtown Dallas that had a confusing layout and signage, according to witness testimony.

Mitch Mitchell is an award-winning reporter covering courts and crime for the Star-Telegram. Additionally, Mitch’s past coverage on municipal government, healthcare and social services beats allow him to bring experience and context to the stories he writes.
Kaley Johnson is a breaking news and enterprise reporter. She majored in investigative reporting at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has a passion for bringing readers in-depth, complex stories that will impact their lives. Send your tips via email or Twitter.
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