A Dallas judge says her decision to hug and share Christian teachings with a convicted murderer in her courtroom was appropriate because she did so after sentencing had occurred in the case.
Judge Tammy Kemp received heated criticism from some secular groups for how she acted during the final moments of Amber Guyger’s trial. Guyger, a former Dallas cop, was sentenced last week to 10 years in jail for killing her neighbor, Botham Shem Jean.
The critics said the district court judge violated church-state separation by giving Guyger her Bible and sharing Christian teachings about sin and salvation ― all while still wearing her official robes.
In an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, Kemp said her actions were appropriate because they occurred after court proceedings had ended. Her gestures were not included as part of the official trial record.
“I didn’t do that from the bench,” she told the AP. “I came down to extend my condolences to the Jean family and to encourage Ms. Guyger because she has a lot of life to live.”
Courtroom video shows Judge Tammy Kemp’s interactions with Amber Guyger after the ex-cop’s sentencing.
Guyger, a 31-year-old white woman, shot and killed Jean, a 26-year-old Black man, in September 2018 in Jean’s apartment. She claims that as she was returning from work she mistook Jean’s apartment for her own, which was directly underneath, and thought he was an intruder.
After Guyger’s sentencing last Wednesday, Kemp allowed Jean’s younger brother, Brandt Jean, to hug Guyger while delivering a victim impact statement. The younger brother said he forgave the ex-cop, didn’t think she should go to jail and hoped she would dedicate her life to Jesus.
With the jury dismissed, Kemp came down from the bench to offer condolences to Jean’s parents, which she told The New York Times is something she often does for bereaved families. She then walked over to speak to Guyger.
“She asked me if I thought her life could have purpose,” Kemp told the Times. “I said, ‘I know that it can.’ She said, ‘I don’t know where to start, I don’t have a Bible.’”
Kemp, a devout Christian who keeps a Bible in her chambers, said she responded, ‘Well, hold on, I’ll get you a Bible.’”
As a Christian, I believe I’m commanded to offer her love and compassion. Judge Tammy Kemp
Kemp retrieved the Bible from her office and returned to the courtroom, still dressed in her official robes. She opened the book to John 3:16, a verse often cited by Christians as a summation of the faith’s teachings about salvation.
“This is your job for the next month. Right here,” Kemp can be heard saying in courtroom video. “John: 3:16. And this is where you start.”
“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,” Kemp told the AP. “Because she still has a lot of life ahead of her following her sentence and I would hope that she could live it purposefully.”
Guyger then asked Kemp for a hug. The judge told the Times that she has hugged defendants many times in the past, but usually after they successfully completed probation or drug treatment.
Kemp told CBS Dallas Fort Worth that Guyger aske her twice before she agreed to the hug. The judge said she stands by her decision to hug the woman and now regrets her initial hesitation.
She said she had “no role to represent the state during a victim impact moment.” She added that she did not pray with Guyger or ask the woman to pray.
“As a Christian, I believe I’m commanded to offer her love and compassion just as Brandt Jean did,” Kemp told CBS.
Kemp was elected to the bench in 2014. She has attended the same Dallas church for 25 years and serves as a deaconess.
The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) filed a complaint Thursday with the Texas State Commission on Judicial Conduct, arguing that Kemp was promoting her personal religious beliefs while acting in her official capacity.
The American Humanist Association and Americans United for Separation of Church and State have not taken legal action over the matter, but representatives from both groups told HuffPost last week that they also view Kemp’s actions as a violation of church-state separation.
On Tuesday, FFRF lawyer Andrew Seidel dismissed Kemp’s defense of her actions as a “nonstarter.” Seidel pointed out that the judge was still in her courtroom, wearing her official robes and in the presence of armed guards while proselytizing to Guyger.
Seidel said he understands that the end of the trial was very emotional for those present ― but he doesn’t think that excuses Kemp.
“She’s bringing her personal religion into her courtroom, which is exactly what the Constitution doesn’t allow,” he said.