November 2019 Church & State Magazine | People & Events

A judge in Texas stepped down from the bench to console a police officer who had been found guilty of murder and hand her a Bible.

Texas District Judge Tammy Kemp had presided over the high-profile case of Amber Guyger, a former police officer in Dallas who shot Botham Jean after accidentally entering his apartment. Guyger testified that she believed she was in her own apartment and thought Jean, who was sitting on the couch eating ice cream, was an intruder.

The case attracted national attention because of its racial overtones. Guyger is white and Jean was black, and during the trial, Guyger argued she was merely defending herself, even though there was no evidence that Jean had acted aggressively toward her. After Kemp sentenced Guyger to 10 years in prison, some commentators argued that the sentence was too brief.

After the sentencing, Jean’s brother, Brandt, announced that he had forgiven Guyger and hugged her in the courtroom. After that, Kemp came down from the bench and hugged Guyger as well. Several media outlets reported that Kemp left the courtroom but quickly came back with a Bible. She handed it to Guyger and said, “This is your job.” Kemp pointed to the passage John 3:16, a favorite among evangelicals, and said, “You just need a tiny mustard seed of faith. You start with this.”

Kemp later told Guyger, “You haven’t done so much that you can’t be forgiven. You did something bad in one moment in time. What you do now matters.”

In a later interview with the Associated Press, Kemp said she believed she had nothing wrong. She insisted that Guyger had initiated the conversation about religion.

“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.”

AU President and CEO Rachel Laser told The Huffington Post that Kemp acted out of line and that she may have introduced an element of bias into her courtroom.

“By distributing a Bible and telling the defendant it is her ‘job’ to read a religious text as she’s on her way to prison, Judge Kemp has sent a message to all defendants who come before her that their religious beliefs could affect the outcomes of their cases and their sentences,” Laser said.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has filed a formal complaint against Kemp before Texas’s State Commission on Judicial Conduct.