Judge Tammy Kemp Shares the Conversation She Had With Amber Guyger That Led to Giving Her a Hug, a Bible, and Hope of Redemption

Judge Tammy Kemp, right, offered encouragement to Amber Guyger after a jury sentenced her to prison. “The act that she committed was horrific,” the judge said in an interview. “But none of us are one thing that we’ve done.”
Credit: Pool photo by Tom Fox

Judge Tammy Kemp is a woman of faith. For more than 25 years, she has attended the same church in Dallas, where she serves as a deaconess. She keeps a Bible in her chambers, positioned on top of her laptop to remind herself to start her day with prayer. And she believes in redemption: In her courtroom, she encourages defendants to use their time in prison to remake their lives.

So when one of those defendants — a former police officer convicted of murdering her unarmed neighbor — asked the judge for advice and a hug last week, the judge’s thoughts turned to a sermon she had heard in church the previous Sunday. The Parable of the Lost Sheep tells the story of a shepherd who still has 99 sheep in his flock, but looks for the one sheep that is lost.

“Our pastor had said: ‘If we’re going to attract the one, we’ve got to show love and compassion.’ And then I also thought, God says my job is to do justice, love mercy and walk humbly,” Judge Kemp said. “So how can you refuse this woman a hug?”

That moment of compassion, in which Judge Kemp gave the former officer a Bible and a hug, was fiercely debated in the days after the trial. 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.

For many, it was simply the latest moment to be debated in an unusual and emotional case, in which an off-duty white police officer, Amber R. Guyger, fatally shot an unarmed black man, Botham Shem Jean, in his own apartment, claiming she thought she was facing an intruder in her own apartment. Community activists had looked to the judge, who is black, to help ensure a fair outcome, and in the end a diverse jury returned a rare verdict of murder, punishing her to 10 years in prison.

Speaking publicly on Monday for the first time since the trial, Judge Kemp, 57, said she was not thinking about Ms. Guyger’s race when she agreed to give her a hug, nor did she offer the Bible unprompted.

Far from regretting her decision, Judge Kemp said she only wished she had not hesitated before agreeing to the hug. “I’m a little embarrassed to say she had to ask me twice,” Judge Kemp said in an interview.

Judge Kemp, with her black robe and thick pearl necklace, became a well-known figure during the trial, which was streamed online and closely followed across the country. Her exasperated expression when she found out that the district attorney had given a television interview that may have broken a gag order in the case was widely shared in a GIF. She also showed uncommon emotion, at times tearing up on the bench.

But it was the final moments in the courtroom, after the trial had formally ended, that drew the most attention.

After a jury sentenced Ms. Guyger to prison for murder, Mr. Jean’s brother took the witness stand to address her directly. Rather than expressing anger, he asked to give her a hug in the courtroom.

“He said ‘please,’ and he said ‘please’ again,” said Judge Kemp, when asked about her decision to allow him to step down from the witness stand. “I just could not refuse him that.”

Judge Kemp, a former prosecutor who took the bench as a Democrat in January 2015, said she approached this case like any other: She got to work each day early in the morning, sometimes while it was still dark, so she could arrange for coffee and make sure jurors had the Greek yogurt and Gatorades they needed to get through a long day in court.

When witnesses testified, she took notes in longhand on a legal pad. And to avoid directing the jury’s attention in any one direction, she said she tried to glance around the courtroom periodically.

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SOURCE: The New York Times, Sarah Mervosh