Who Gets Grace in the Courtroom?

State District Judge Tammy Kemp gives former Dallas Police Officer Amber Guyger a hug before Guyger leaves for jail, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, in Dallas.
State District Judge Tammy Kemp gives former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger a hug before Guyger leaves for jail, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019, in Dallas. Photo: Tom Fox/AP

Many were moved last week when Brandt Jean, after seeing Amber Guyger get sentenced to ten years in prison, asked if it was alright for him to hug his brother’s murderer. The teenager crossed the courtroom and embraced the white woman and former Dallas police officer who shot and killed 26-year-old Botham Jean in his apartment; Guyger claimed to have mistaken the elder Jean’s unit for hers, which was on the floor below, and the black man eating ice cream inside for a burglar. “I think giving your life to Christ would be the best thing that Botham would want for you,” Brandt Jean said. Guyger sobbed in his arms. “If you are truly sorry, I know I can speak for myself, I forgive you,” he added through tears of his own. Among those who wept along with the pair was Judge Tammy Kemp, who had presided over the trial. The spirit of grace was so overwhelming that she couldn’t resist it, she told the AP in an interview published on Monday: Kemp stepped down from the bench, hugged Guyger herself, and gifted the convicted woman a Bible.

The controversy that erupted after these two exchanges focused mostly on the culture that valorized them — the racist norms that praise black forgiveness of white violence without demanding any changes to the society that produced them. Some lambasted Jean, whom they deemed too gracious and deferential in the face of another black man murdered by a police officer. Kemp’s involvement was almost an afterthought, but of the two, it best encapsulated why outrage marked so much of the response. For her part, the judge claims to have been surprised that people were bothered by what she did at all. “I don’t understand the anger,” Kemp, who is black, told the AP. “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.” It’s unclear as it is unlikely that Kemp has left the bench before to hug a person convicted of a crime, let alone to tell that person “that, even given the fact that she murdered someone, God still loves her.” That’s because the grace Kemp practices almost certainly is situational, despite her claim to the contrary. And that’s a problem, particularly given its absence when it’s needed the most.

It’s extraordinarily unique for the sibling of a murder victim to publicly forgive — let alone hug — the person responsible for their pain. But its uniqueness does not make a similar response from an agent of the American judiciary any more appropriate, especially when applied to a fellow state agent. Such generosity is the standard, and helps many police get away with wrongdoing. But even beyond that, Kemp could easily be in a position soon to oversee an appeal of Guyger’s conviction, about which her impartiality is now further in doubt. As is how widely grace actually gets practiced in her jurisdiction: There’s boundless room for compassion in a criminal-justice system that owes much of its current breadth to racism and the persecution of poverty, and plenty of it exists in Dallas County, where Kemp presides. Roughly 70 percent of the more than 5,000 inmates at the local jail have not been convicted of crimes, and many are there because they can’t afford the bail money needed to walk free. Yet grace continues to elude these prisoners, even as advocacy groups accelerate efforts to buy their freedom. If grace was practiced with the non-situational abandon that Kemp suggests, these would be the people who’d benefit most — and practiced as a matter of habit, not a dramatic deviation from the norm.

Instead, more than exemplifying grace, Kemp’s actions have laid bare its lack for anyone who isn’t a police officer begging for reassurance of their worth. Even its extension here seems conditional, in part, on Guyger’s yearning for a Christian version of it: “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, a Christian, told the AP. The question then arises: What if Guyger had been openly Jewish or Muslim? Had she cast herself as an atheist disinterested in divine forgiveness but who repented anyway, rather than Christ-curious and seeking God’s grace, would the same embrace and certainty of her salvation been offered? The prospect is as dubious as the propriety of evangelism being practiced in a court of law in the first place. Guyger is entitled to believe in whatever God catches her fancy. The partiality of a judge on this basis is a separate matter entirely.

None of this is divisible from Guyger’s status as a white woman, which marks her as unique among the mostly male and disproportionately black and Latino arrestees who cycle through the system. The dearth of hugs, promises of forgiveness, and gifted Bibles that marks their experience casts doubt on the likelihood that her being white and crying openly and loudly throughout her trial, claiming to wish she’d been killed instead of Botham Jean, played no role in her magnanimous treatment. These asymmetries are profound, but they also present an opportunity. Radical grace is not likely a matter of practice in Kemp’s courtroom at the moment. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be more thoroughly integrated into her jurisprudence moving forward. This can mean hugs and Bibles and vows of God’s forgiveness to every defendant who stands before her. It can also mean refusing to demand cash bail to bankroll a racist system and punish the poor for being poor, and generally applying the same generosity to every defendant that she has to her fellow law enforcement official. The latitude given to American judges to do what they please makes her options virtually limitless. She just needs to act. What happens in her courtroom moving forward will say more about grace therein than anything concerning Amber Guyger.

Who Gets Grace in the Courtroom?